Hunt's need for speed makes him wear broadband blinkers

Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary in the UK, announced today that there are plans to have the “best superfast broadband network in Europe” by 2015. But how realistic are his goals – and are they as forward-thinking as they need to be?

Hunt defined super-fast broadband, to him and the Coalition government, as at least 25Mbps. He wants to have that speed rolled out to 90 percent of the UK by 2015. Hunt and the government will face a huge challenge: replacing infrastructure in heavily developed areas is no mean feat. And by the time it’s there – who is to say it won’t be redundant?

The UK is already behind on infrastructure, hence the plans. Global ratings place us behind plenty of other countries in and out of the EU – which is bizarre for a country which relies so heavily on digital and e-commerce. While our cousins across the pond are already enjoying a kind of 4G, though purists will disagree, our contract plans still offer us guff in advertorial as if it’s the best thing in the world.

A trip to any conference showcasing future tech will dishearten a British citizen, both delighted and frustrated at the same time about the developments in the pipeline. And how long they’ll take to reach us.

So is it wise to put all of our eggs in this barely-defined superfast basket? According to Alex Buttle, of, possibly not. The lofty goals for speedier internet should be encouraged, but he “would not envy anyone trying to do that job.”

It can be done. But it could also be a politician’s wizard wheeze to encourage the digital-thinking Briton. 

“It’s a long time, we’re talking years away, but basically the infrastructure could be there to deliver it,” Buttle tells us. “It can be done, but the fact is that broadband isn’t reliable. There are always exchange and cabling problems.

“But it is such a local product, and there are such differentials in speed from street to street, it’d be hard to say it’ll be there for everyone by 2015.

“The averages might come out healthy, but I’d be impressed if they managed to nail it because of the scale of the infrastructure.”

It’s a lot of work. We’re talking industrial-scale power digging up the roads and re-cabling in developed areas. With cabling, you have to physically dig up concrete. There’s a lot of that in the United Kingdom, as Milton Keynes will tell you.

When we asked Buttle about the relevancy of starting the long-term project when the technology space advances so quickly, he told us: “The kind of reports that have been commissioned are for fixed line broadband, but obviously there is not that 4G network in place.” 

Wouldn’t it make sense to focus on high-speed wireless infrastructure? “We are moving towards a wireless world on smartphones and with tablets,” Buttle agrees. “Is there enough investment for LTE and 4G? The argument is there probably isn’t.”

Broadband comparison service Top10 suggests that download speeds of 20Mb are super-fast but only 9.6 percent of its consumers tested rate higher than 20Mb, while, it says, the average UK download speed is 8.14Mb.

Hunt’s goal is formidable – and time will tell whether the stiff wager will provide the kind of returns the UK deserves to be truly competitive.