When we sold our house recently, our buyer asked all the usual questions. How old was the boiler, what were the local schools like and how much did it cost to heat the place? Then he inquired about an issue probably more important to ease of everyday living than any of the above – how fast was the broadband speed?
I answered him honestly. I rely on the internet to make my living, and I have two very tech-savvy children, so I pulled out all the stops over the years to make sure that our internet was fast as humanly possible. This involved a byzantine arrangement of cables and receivers and boosters which gave the signal every chance it could get.
Without it, we would have struggled to receive anything fast enough to load up Google in the living room, never mind “live stream” YouTube clips or films.
I’m not surprised then to hear that as few as 10 per cent of British people are receiving the broadband speeds advertised by providers such as BT, Sky and TalkTalk. This means that anything up to 15 million households suffer frustratingly slow access – if they can get access at all – to the internet, email, and video-streaming services such as Netflix and the BBC’s iPlayer.
It’s all down to the grand claims made in those exciting advertisements which promise the world at our fingertips and deliver a blue circle on our screen in an endless loop instead. Urged on by complaints from consumer group Which?, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that companies can promote broadband packages by promising customers download speeds of “up to” 10 or 20 megabits per second (Mbps). However, few of us realise that this claim is allowed even if just 10 per cent of customers can technically achieve this speed. Obviously, most people who sign up to a service offering “up to 10mbps” expect to receive just that. However, the ASA found that a staggering nine out of 10 may not.
Would we accept this level of service from anything else? If our washing machine only worked at a tenth of its capacity, or we could watch just 90 per cent of programmes on our televisions, would this be OK? I think not.
That’s why we can’t afford to simply shrug our shoulders and accept rubbish broadband as an inevitable fact of 21st century life. It is absolutely vital. Not just for domestic harmony and happy children, but for conducting all manner of personal administration, and most crucially for the growth of business and commerce. I know people wanting to relocate their operations from London who have vetoed a whole list of provincial towns and villages because they simply can’t get the broadband they need to work efficiently.
In our region this is especially important. Study after study has shown that poor provision of broadband is having a hugely detrimental effect on the economy. There was even a claim by Sheffield Chamber of Commerce earlier this year that broadband speeds in Yorkshire’s second-biggest city were lagging behind those across Europe, offering less than half the speed of villages in Poland and Romania.
The reasons behind all of this are as murky and mind-boggling as the (online, of course) instructions for setting up a new router. We’ve been promised ultra-fast broadband around Sheffield for years now, but the roll-out has been beset by delays and funding problems.
Super Fast South Yorkshire, the £28m project to roll out fibre broadband across Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham now says it plans to have fibre access to 98 per cent of homes and businesses by 2018/9. I wish them luck with that.
However, meanwhile, those in charge of infrastructure and the internet service providers have a lot of work to do to keep paying customers happy and online.
We must not be held as hostages to advertisements which hide the tedious reality in clever words, celebrity voice-overs and glossy promotional campaigns.
Companies which persist must be held to account. The ASA is entirely right to do its worst. However, there is a role, too, for government to play. Not just in ensuring that there is clear chain of Ministerial command in charge of broadband provision across the country, but in taking on the fact that the vast majority of the British population cannot rely 100 per cent on the internet.
I know we have a “digital Minister”, Matt Hancock, the Conservative MP for West Suffolk. But poor and patchy provision seems to have been totally overlooked by every Government department which insists on directing individuals towards doing their business in a virtual world. Whether it’s council tax or income tax returns, child benefit claims or television licences, unless you have access to the internet you might as well be living in another galaxy. This alienates millions of might not even own a laptop or tablet, never mind pay a monthly fortune out to an internet Service Provider.
Therefore, I would like those who are driving this online revolution forward to accept that there is a massive disconnect between what they would like to happen and what is actually happening. Or not.