Sunday, 27 October 2013

Ofcom broadband infrastructure report shows widening digital divide

Ofcom publishes 2013 update

It is good to see that the data tables now include median speeds by postcode (more on these in a later post), and that a graph showing modem sync speeds is also published. This post looks at the graph.

Figure 1 shows the Distribution of modem sync speeds across UK broadband customers. Here is an annotated version.

The graph clearly shows three distinct technologies: ADSL, ADSL2, and next generation access (NGA – which includes both BT's VDSL and Virgin's cable). The jump from ADSL or ADSL2 to NGA is indeed a step change.


On the face of it these figures show improvement across the board. But the graph tells a more subtle story.

In 2012, maybe 12% of those getting ADSL speeds were getting the maximum possible from that technology. The remainder – say 49% of the population – were getting lower speeds, presumably because their copper lines were too long to go any faster. By 2013 those whose lines were short enough to get the maximum speed from ADSL had moved to ADSL2 or NGA. However, if we are to believe this figure, ver few of those with ADSL connections running slow on too-long copper in 2012 saw any improvement at all.

The mean speeds reported with much fanfare have increased, because the digital-rich, whose connections already ran faster than most in 2012, just got richer. But the median speed is almost unchanged, since few of the digital poor – those whose connections ran slower than most in 2012 – have seen any significant change.

The digital divide is widening.

The line for 2013 shows that some of those now on ADSL2 technology have copper lines short enough to get its maximum speed – but that many do not. The fibre-to-the-copper (FTTC) technology, being used for the BT/BDUK broadband programme, uses VDSL over the copper line to the home, and any copper too long to deliver ADSL2 at maximum speed will not do any better with VDSL. Instead, part of the copper line is replaced by fibre to the cabinet, and unless your line from the cabinet is shorter than about 1200 metres you will not see any useful benefits from NGA.

As yet, it appears that virtually none of the digital poor have benefitted from FTTC.