Broadband - are we really in the slow lane?

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Media captionMr Garner denied Openreach was forcing customers onto more expensive products

Britain is in the broadband slow lane. That at least is the message from many listeners to the BBC's Today Programme.

From deep in the countryside, and even from the middle of major towns, they have contacted the programme with tales of terrible service and sluggish speeds - and it is BT's Openreach division which is in the firing line.

One of BT's rivals, TalkTalk told the programme that the UK lagged behind even Ukraine in providing fast broadband. BT has fired back, claiming that its £2.5bn investment in fibre broadband is a great British success story.

While it is never hard to find people who are unhappy with their broadband, it is a lot more difficult to establish the facts about how the UK compares with other countries. So here's my attempt to find answers to a few questions..

How do we rank with our rivals?

Back in 2010, the coalition government promised that Britain would have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015. That target was revised in 2012 to the less ambitious aim of having "the fastest broadband of any major European country". The regulator Ofcom has been watching our progress on this front and earlier this year its European Broadband Scorecard compared the UK with France, Germany, Spain and Italy.

When it came to both coverage and take-up of broadband at a speed of more than 30 megabits per second (Mbps) - Ofcom's definition of superfast - the UK took the number one spot. Of course, there are European countries like the Netherlands and even Malta which perform better, but Ofcom says they have concentrated populations spread over small flat areas, so it's best to compare with countries which are similar in scale and geography.

But what about speed?

Ofcom's scorecard has N/A - not available - in the box for the speed comparison in Europe's top five. The regulator says - and many agree - that it is very hard to find common mechanisms comparing broadband speeds across different countries. But a report from the House of Lords earlier this year quoted one measure as evidence that the UK - or at least London - was falling behind.

Data from the Ookla online speed test showed that London's average download broadband speed ranked 26th out of 33 European capital cities. This also appears to be the source used by TalkTalk's Dido Harding when she said we ranked behind Ukraine in broadband speeds.

BT says this data is deeply unreliable - by definition it only measures the speed of those who choose to test, and tells us nothing about the wider availability of such speeds. Ofcom appears to agree.

Image copyright ALAMY

But what do we mean by fast?

Here's where the real controversy lies, and it centres on technology. Ofcom, as we have seen, defines superfast as more than 30Mbps. But TalkTalk prefers to talk about Ultrafast, speeds of 100Mbps and higher. These, say the company, can only be reliably delivered via Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), putting a cable right into your home.

By contrast, BT's nationwide rollout has depended for the most part on Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC), which is fine if you live close to the cabinet, not so good if the signal has to travel a long way down the copper wire which remains the way BT brings broadband into most homes.

But BT says it chose FTTC as the technology which would deliver "the most speed to the most people", and is sceptical about the demand for the kind of speeds that fibre to the home can offer.

TalkTalk is mounting a pilot project offering FTTP to homes in York, and says it should be able to deliver speeds of one gigabit per second (Gbps) at a competitive price. At long last, we may be about to see more choice in fast broadband provision. But don't expect people who aren't getting the speeds they want to be satisfied when they are told that things are worse in rural France.