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Mapping broadband

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:04 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

Seattle: How good is Britain's broadband coverage and how many communities are missing out? As we've found over recent years, they are hot political question that are very difficult to answer because of a lack of data. Maybe what we need is a national broadband map - like the one that has just been unveiled in the United States.

National Broadband map


The map gives detailed coverage of broadband access in every American community, allowing users to see who the providers are in their area, the different technologies employed, and the speeds they offer, right down to street level. There are all kinds of useful tools to examine the data, and work out how different places compare. It also carries special reports on the differences between urban and rural areas and which regions have no broadband availability at all.

Overall, the map and an accompanying report from the US government suggest that between five and 10% of Americans do not have access to broadband at the speeds necessary for tasks that are becoming essential - uploading photos, viewing video and so on. But the number of households actually subscribing to broadband has risen from 63% to 68% in the last year.

I'm in Seattle for a couple of days, and I can see that the suburb where I'm staying, Bellevue, is very well sorted when it comes to broadband, with everything from Comcast's fibre running at up to 100Mbps, to wireless broadband from the likes of T-Mobile at 6-10Mbps. This is an area packed with hi-tech businesses so it's hardly surprising that it's wired for the future.

I then picked another town at random , Amarillo, Texas. Not quite so good - nothing above 10Mbps. And elsewhere the picture is a lot less positive - indeed most of the American press coverage of this new map has zeroed in on the gaping holes in broadband availability, which show up as white spaces. Here's a report in the Charleston Gazette:

"West Virginia is a vast island of white space except for the eastern Panhandle, the Charleston-Huntington corridor, the Beckley area and a few colored splotches along Interstate 79."

The report goes on to point out that the state ranks 48th in terms of speed rankings.
The Washington Post's headline warns of a digital divide and goes on to say that the survey finds that "Americans in lower-income and rural areas often have slower Internet connections than users in wealthier communities."

So two conclusions. First, the United States does not have quite such an advanced broadband infrastructure as you might expect - indeed, it does not look that different from what we have in the UK. Secondly, information is always political.

The more consumers know about how their services compare with their neighbours, the more they will press for change and improvement. The US map will be updated every six months, and each new version will spark more stories about regional and international comparisons and campaigns for more government spending to close a digital divide.

Isn't it about time then, that we had a similar map in the UK so that we can work out more precisely the scale of the challenge for a government committed to delivering the best broadband in Europe by 2015? Over to you, Ofcom.


  • Comment number 1.

    It is a common in most western countries to have the affluent areas with the best connectivity and the less affluent/poor areas with poor internet connectivity. The situation can only change if/when governments in help out these people and improve the areas

  • Comment number 2.

    How much did the FCC mapping exercise cost, Rory ?

    Wikipedia says "The $350 million figure was reduced over time to about $100 million".

    I'm not convinced about mapping, we know there's an opportunity to improve, we don't need a picture we need some entrepreneurial action.

  • Comment number 3.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    "Isn't it about time then, that we had a similar map in the UK.."

  • Comment number 4.

    If an upmarket suburb in Microsoft's home town didn't have decent broadband that would be worth reporting.

  • Comment number 5.

    Surely this info already exists? every now and then, i check my speed on or any other similar site (a quick google and you can find hundreds). Surely these could happily supply the data?
    I bet if you asked Tre-arch, they could tell you everyone's speed who is playing Call of Duty today, and that would give you a good idea...

    If anyone spends money on this, i will be quite miffed.

  • Comment number 6.

    There are plenty of businesses that rely very heavily on the ability to transfer very large files to and fro online. How long before we see people actually moving to areas of high connectivity precisely because of that, leaving "undeveloped" areas a "wasteland" of people, jobs etc?

    If government wants to regenerate certain areas of the UK, the very first step they should undertake is the provision of high-speed broadband.

  • Comment number 7.

    The notspot site is quite good.

    We need to break BTs monopoly on our our streets and let other companies invest in infrastructure.

  • Comment number 8.

    I would like to see a map of everywhere in the UK that does not yet have mains gas. This is an analagous utility to broadband - expensive to lay the final mile, so missing out the remote, unpopulated or low-income areas.
    I predict that if (like me) you do not have mains gas 50 years after its first rollout, you will be among the last to receive >1Meg broadband.

  • Comment number 9.

    BT needs to have competion for laying out the fibre optic cable for broadband.They will only put it in places that will give them big returns for their shareholders.All other places i:e rural areas can grin and bear it with very slow or no broadband at all because BT does not give a damn.
    Shareholders are god and do not expect the Cons to do anything, after all ,they do want to keep their private shares in BT as high as possible.
    BT,for to long , have been the only company that have been allowed to lay telephone lines around the country.Come on Cons, lets see just how honest you really are and allow competion in this area,we might then see better connections for all around the country.

  • Comment number 10.

    " BT,for to long , have been the only company that have been allowed to lay telephone lines around the country"

    there is no such monopoly, others may have opted not to invest but there is nothing stopping others rolling out fibre, CATV, wireless or copper networks. It has been done in a few spots.

  • Comment number 11.

    Crowd-sourced methods like are a good start. However, the incumbent telecoms operators could do a lot better...

    One issue that seems to prevent accurate telecoms mapping is that the BT will not release information on it's asset locations, naming the BT green cabinet locations (approximately +10,000 UK wide) 'for commercial reasons'. These are key pieces of infrastructure on the roll out of Fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC).

    The lack of existing asset infrastructure knowledge is actually preventing smaller telcoms companies produce reliable cost-models for knowing which areas to invest and answer the key much is it going to cost/what can we charge to install fibre broadband infrastructure to area X?

    BT needs to, as a matter of urgency, release asset locations and related meta-data. Spatial analysis and mapping / cost modelling would then become a much easier task.

    Rory - apply some pressure on BT!

    Sir Tim Burners-Lee successfully got the Ordnance Survey open their vaults...RAW DATA NOW!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Graphis, Backwoods_Bill, samfranklin.

    perhaps, as a first step, the UK should emulate Finland in making access to broadband a legal entitlement? (

  • Comment number 13.

    "BT needs to have competion for laying out the fibre optic cable for broadband" - they do.
    All the competition sticks to towns and cities because it's profitable.
    Look at Virgin Media - the fastest broadband, but only available to select regions.
    The market works - but only where there's a big enough market, otherwise people need to help themselves rather than crying to the government.

  • Comment number 14.

    "We need to break BTs monopoly on our our streets and let other companies invest in infrastructure."

    Blimey, talk about being out of date. BT haven't had a monopoly for the last decade. Openreach own what used to be BT's external infrastructure and other companies have had the right to use what they see fit (at a ludicrously low cost) or run their own infrastructure for a few decades.

    The fact that other companies don't want their own cables in the ground tells you how expensive it is to run and maintain them. You can't go on blaming BT for that.

  • Comment number 15.

    Yes we need a map like this and also; one showing prices, another showing speed and a mash up with the speed cost mix.

    Broadband suppliers are still "ripping off" customers. Only last week the biggest provider after pushing delivered me a £10 reduction per month. Small beer perhaps but in these days of higher costs all round action is needed to reduce every single penny of cost.

  • Comment number 16.

    It would be useful to have an accurate map. Unfortunately, crowd-sourced data like that used for the notspot website is far too unreliable.

    According to the site I live in a 'low speed' broadband area where I cannot get more than 2Mbps (in Central London). There are many other such low speed areas dotted around Central London. In my case I get just under 10Mbps from an ADSL2+ connection, and if I really wanted/needed more I could get 50Mbps from Virgin Media.

    It may be that someone who lives nearby is getting sub-2Mbps, but that could for a number of reasons (poor internal wiring, fault on the line, poor ISP, etc), and does not tell you much about what maximum speed is actually available in that area.

  • Comment number 17.

    If the biggest cost and hence the biggest hurdle to roll-out of FTTC is that of laying the fibre as opposed to buying it and installing the VDSL modem cabinets, then it's time we used the increasing British dole-force to do some digging.

    We don't need maps, we need to empower - if people want 50Mbps+, then they'll dig for it.

  • Comment number 18.

    I live in a 'cable area' but about 100metres from the cable run, so have no cable option. The cable company decided that it was too expensive to lay in the cable. Currently the cost of cable laying is very high and, it is supposed to be done by staff with the skill and knowledge to lay it correctly. Termination equipment is a small part of the price and can almost be ignored. Neither BT nor any other company can be blamed if they are not able to finance the laying of cable into sparse areas where the costs per customer could well run higher than £ 60,000 per connection. A simple walk round the area will show those areas with the highest penetration of 'second option companies' (now mainly Virgin Media), hint it is NOT the areas with big well spaced out houses with large gardens.

  • Comment number 19.

    Sam Knows seems to give some good info for some areas.Actual measurements from the users ?


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