Rory Cellan-Jones

Britain - the digital champion?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 17 Dec 09, 09:35 GMT

If you live in the UK, be proud - you're a citizen of one of the world's most advanced countries when it comes to digital communications. You're more likely to have switched to digital television than anyone else, you enjoy some of the highest levels of broadband availability in the world while paying the lowest prices to use mobile phones and the internet.

That's the picture painted by the media regulator Ofcom, whose annual compendium of international media and communications habits is full of fascinating titbits, like a rich Christmas pudding. Did you know for instance that the average British viewer watches three hours and 45 minutes of television every day, and that we've seen a bigger increase in TV viewing than any other country? Mind you, we still have some way to go before we catch up with the Americans, who lead the world with four hours and 37 minutes in front of the box each day.

Then there's the fact that the British are the second biggest texters in the world, sending 83 billion last year. Mind you, I was surprised to learn that the USA leads the world in texting - I was under the impression that Americans were a little backwards in all things mobile. Maybe they're now falling in love with SMS just as the rest of the world moves on to the mobile web. After all, the stats also show that the UK is a leader in accessing social networks on the move - 3.5 million people visited Facebook and its rivals on a mobile in the third quarter of this year.

As a country where you can make money online we're also ahead of the pack, leading the world in online advertising, and spending more on digital downloads than any other country in Europe. Mind you at £2.24 per head on downloads last year - that's roughly 10 times what the Italians spent - I don't think the music industry can relax yet about wallowing in digital profits.

And what about our general connectedness? Well Ofcom proudly lays out figures showing we have more broadband connections per household than anyone apart from the Canadians, the best 3g coverage, and the highest level of HSPA connections - that's souped-up 3g - outside Japan.

Just a minute, I hear you ask, I thought we were in the broadband slow lane. Well, buried so deep in the report that I had to ask Ofcom to retrieve it for me, is one table that doesn't paint quite such a glowing picture. Figure 4.47 shows the proportion of broadband connections with a headline speed above 8Mbits/s. In the UK that's 10% - whereas in the Netherlands it's 37%, in Sweden 33%, in France 26% and in Germany 16%.

Ofcom showing proportion of broadband connections with a headline speed above 8MBits/s

That accords with another report issued a week or so back by the OECD. It showed the UK well down the speed league, and more significantly found that investment in fibre was racing ahead in other countries but had barely started in Britain. The OECD's report included some economic analysis which suggested that government investment in faster broadband could be justified even if it delivered just small benefits in areas such as health, electricity, education and transport.

I was pondering some of these issues as I was out walking the dog on a bitter London morning. While I walked, I listened on my phone to an excellent radio programme about the advance of technology in the last decade, A Googling We Will Go. The programme streamed via the BBC mobile iPlayer, arrived first over my home wi-fi, and then via a 3g phone network. But just as it was getting really interesting, about half a mile from my front door the 3g network gave out and the programme stopped. I had been disconnected from the information superhighway, just a few miles from central London.

What kind of metaphor that provides for the state of Digital Britain I'm not sure. But perhaps Ofcom could have been just a little more cautious in its claims about our status as the champions of the connected world.


  • Comment number 1.

    Britain still needs a kick up the behind to get them into shape with the digital age, IMO.

  • Comment number 2.

    Ofcom and industry ought to take note that users thirst for connectivity is huge, and Digital Britons are miles ahead of the policy makers in our thirst to do more.

    The forthcoming Digital Dividend process provides a great opportunity to complete some more pieces to the Digital Britain jigsaw. Available here are some user oriented changes to the proposed BIS direction to Ofcom on auctioning spectrum to the highest bidder. I am proposing some spectrum is allocated so we users can link our fixed and mobile connectivity in out home routers and begin to get more of what is possible in connectivity terms.

    Ofcoms priority for 2010 will be to secure as much cash for Treasury from the auction process, keeping in place strange notions that fixed and mobile are different markets, when all connectivity constituties a cable with an attached radio.

    The potential to improve Digital Britain is much more interesting than Ofcom's propaganda on average speeds. The real issue is whether our national data transport is suitable to support critical applications, like replacing our legacy voice services (fixed and mobile) with a multi-media communications service? This is very do-able but it requires a strategy to achieve, something you will not find on Ofcoms website.

    Note if we combine our payments for affordable broadband, affordable fixed voice and affordable mobile (voice, text, and broadband access) there is plenty there to pay for a better quality connectivity, but it will require encumbent operators to actively replace legacy revenues. Rather than tackling this issue in a systematic way Ofcom is publishing this propaganda, a shame when they have so many clever people more than capable for setting the appropriate direction.

  • Comment number 3.

    I still find it ridiculous that Britons cannot expect to receive the advertised download speed from their ISP. I recently signed up to a premium broadband service from one of the market leaders in this country, which is for 'unlimited monthly usage at speeds of up to 20Mb.' Now, I regularly check my connection speed at all times of the day, and receive on average about 1Mb at peak times and no better than 6Mb at about 2 in the morning when no-one else other than me is online. And I apparently live in a high-speed broadband area. Why are ISPs allowed to keep advertising for much higher speeds when surely they know that they are being deliberately deceptive with these figures? I signed up for a premium contract (not cheap) in the hope that I would get a guarantee of fast and reliable broadband and frankly I feel cheated once again by yet another of Britain's best known ISPs. The high-speed fibre optics continue to improve nationally so why doesn't the service?

  • Comment number 4.

    I empathise with you, that the programme you were listening to gave out part way through in the middle of what should be decent coverage area. I have had this happen frequently - even in good WiFi coverage.

    But is the problem coverage, or the dependence on streaming media. This is a technology choice by the BBC that limits how their programs can be enjoyed. As Stephen Fry has pointed out (, its not really that hard to get around the restriction, but its fiddly. It is however only a matter of time before someone cracks the UI problem.

    Clinging to restricting content is failing to appreciate how fast communications technology is moving, and how the paradigm HAS shifted.

    I am thrilled the BBC provides iPlayer, I will be more thrilled when they take the next step and make their entire historic collection available, on demand and on multiple platforms for on and off line viewing.

    Living in a city where the majority of the population travels underground makes a reliance on constant connectivity seem to be missing the point.

  • Comment number 5.


    Saw some bod on the news this morning from DB basically shrugging and saying, "Yes, we've screwed up in certain places, but if it's where you are... tough... go out and pay a bloke to fix what we couldn't get right'.

    Apt metaphor for much in the UK today.

  • Comment number 6.

    Until Ofcom are brave enough to hold Broadband providers to task on "up to xMbs", unspecified "fair usage policies" and "unlimited download limits" this situation will continue to be a joke.

    Its one of the only industries where they are allowed to set unspecified limits, but restrict you once you've gone through an invisible barrier.

  • Comment number 7.


    That is very informative news regarding Britain is a Digital Champion....

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 8.

    The problem, is that we are building lots of services on top of very narrow foundations. There is little infrastructure spend - on wired or wireless capacity - simply because content providers and infrastructure providers are arguing over who pays. The whole enterprise is very unstable, with good commercial ideas fading out due to lack of take-up because of little core bandwidth and poor coverage. Of course the government should lay the cable and put up the masts, but it sold off that capability to the mobile phone companies and when it privatised BT . . .

  • Comment number 9.

    And 10 million people don't use the Internet, mainly because they are too poor, too old, or don't have the ability to do so. But they will pay a stealth tax on their phone bill so that those who are rich, young and educated can stream video and play fancy games.

  • Comment number 10.

    =Dennis Junior=

    Are you going for some sort of record for the greatest number of irrelevant and illiterate comments posted to BBC blogs? You're everywhere, saying absolutely nothing.

  • Comment number 11.

    with a country this size we should have 100% coverage. There are larger countries with more harsh landscapes which get broadband out to people. Speed is good if you live in London, but even in towns the broadband is significantly much poorer.

  • Comment number 12.

    What is this, some talk up the UK propaganda! UK is way behind Asia, let alone our major European competitors. In Asia they have adopted fibre optic to house, apartments are rated on speed of Internet connection and Wi-fi is mostly free in shopping malls, coffee shops and other public areas These governments realise IT and IT skills are the future enablers of business and wealth generation; you see it in the people in coffee shops working on laptops conducting phone calls and business. Our Government is just useless; no vision or strategy, no wonder we are becoming just an industrial museum

  • Comment number 13.

    To deliver a streaming HD video you need a nailed up 6Mbps. It's pretty unlikely that a contended ADSL connection will deliver that, and slightly less unlikely that an ADSL2+ connection will be able to do it at a 50:1 contention ratio.

    "Super Fast Broadband" is coming soon which is Fibre the the Cabinet then VDSL from there which should, fingers crossed, deliver a "head line" speed of circa 40Mbps. But whether this will be able to support more than 1 HD stream, or even 1 HD stream, remains to be seen.

    Of course what we really need is fibre to the home.

    Hey ho.

  • Comment number 14.

    To deliver a streaming HD video you need a nailed up 6Mbps

    Of course, that's only true if you need it delivered absolutely in real time, which more or less means it's true for the iPlayer, which unlike every other online video system, perversely refuse to buffer the stream.

  • Comment number 15.

    Texting is just a new way of being rude to your companions, while they stand there patiently, thinking,... :)

  • Comment number 16.

    in the countryside in england the connection is terrible at highest ive had 450Kbps and normaly i get about 125Kbps and we have the "10Mbps at peak times" service.

  • Comment number 17.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 18.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 19.

    For an "apparently" high tech digital Britain we are certainly lacking in many areas.

    Public WiFi is pretty much non existant, especially where it matters.

    Stable connection speeds are pretty much unheard of judging by my connection and others that i have spoken to.

    Pricing for broadband services doesn't reflect on the quality of broadband connection

    Coverage is basically on par with the Dark Ages

    Im sure there are more points too ^_^ just cant think of them

  • Comment number 20.

    I'm sorry but Britain is most certainly NOT the digital champion. For Euro countries, that award must go to one of the Scandinavian countries. We're rolling out 4G mobile technology now and have complete 3G coverage ... even in Lapland. Our internet (here in Finland certainly) is clocking 110Mb/Sec with an average of over 50 (second in the world only to Japan). We have 100% digital TV coverage and were the first in the world to switch of terrestrial. Flawless, free WiFi in most public areas in most major towns. No limits on 3G data usage on our mobiles... the list goes on.
    I laughed when Britain announced the were planning to have 50Mb to the whole country by 2017.. sorry but by that stage the rest of the world will probably clocking well in to the hundreds if not at least 1GB (Japan currently peaking at that over fiber!)
    Wake up, in some respects, Britain is doing well. In most (especially internet), you're way behind.

  • Comment number 21.

    Ofcom are living in a dreamworld, Britain is sadly a digital has-been. We have no national champion companies to drive the technology forward in this sector so we get the communications service sector we deserve as a reward. Can anyone list a British high-tech producer of leading-edge communications products, like Nokia (Finnish), RIM/Blackberry (Canadian), LG, HTC (Korean), Sony (Japanese), Ericsson (Swedish), Apple, Nortel, Motorola, Qualcomm, Cisco, Netgear (USA) ? In slow-lane UK, science and engineering are not valued. Neither are hard work, technical excellence and endeavour, long-term thinking and investment in solid activities like research and development, manufacturing, production and technical education. Our backwardness in the service available reflects our backwardness in the world of science, engineering and intellectual property. Now we reap the victory of form over substance that marks the UK's decline into world-wide insignificance. Ofcom, stick that in your report!

  • Comment number 22.

    When I was living in Japan 4 years ago I had 20Mbit/s broadband. That was pretty much standard, I didn't have a high bandwidth connection. There's a limit to what can be achieved over copper, going to fibre optics is long overdue, unfortunately it's also expensive to put in the infrastructure required. But if we don't, we'll continue to sip further behind other nations. And lets not forget there's many a place in the UK now (like my hometown in mid Wales) which dream of getting even 2Mbit/sec!

  • Comment number 23.

    It's a shame that we Britons are so in love with our technology. Yes, it may be the easiest way to keep up with what's going on in the world, but we've got radio, television and the press for that.

    I know many people with good broadband connections who barely have time to attend to anything else. The rise in availability of broadband in a typical family home has led to the kids sitting upstairs all day on their computers, alienated from their parents by the lure of Youtube and Facebook.

    And now that these technologies have stretched to [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]mobile phones there's no telling what effect it'll have on daily interaction between two people, face-to-face. Recent studies have shown that young adults are more comfortable chatting online or texting than in person. It's very worrying.


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