How Thatcher killed the UK’s superfast broadband before it even existed

Grrrh! I could get really annoyed about this! Living and working in rural Stirlingshire has its advantages for sure, but fast broadband is not one of them.

(Copied from Techradar)

As you sit on the phone to your ISP’s customer service line, listening to half-baked excuses for why you’ve only got 0.5Mbps upload speed and why you “need” to upgrade to “superfast” fibre optic, it may be little comfort to know that in an alternate reality you’d already have it as standard.

In 1990, a single decision by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a devastating effect on the UK’s broadband infrastructure for the next 20 years and for the foreseeable future.

In a little known story about the UK’s broadband history, Dr Peter Cochrane, former Chief Technology Officer at BT and all round tech guru, tells TechRadar how the UK lost the broadband race way back in the 90s.

The story actually begins in the 70s when Dr Cochrane was working as BT’s Chief Technology Officer, a position he’d climbed up to from engineer some years earlier.

Dr Cochrane knew that Britain’s tired copper network was insufficient: “In 1974 it was patently obvious that copper wire was unsuitable for digital communication in any form, and it could not afford the capacity we needed for the future.”

He was asked to do a report on the UK’s future of digital communication and what was needed to move forward.

“In 1979 I presented my results,” he tells us, “and the conclusion was to forget about copper and get into fibre. So BT started a massive effort – that spanned in six years – involving thousands of people to both digitise the network and to put fibre everywhere. The country had more fibre per capita than any other nation.

“In 1986, I managed to get fibre to the home cheaper than copper and we started a programme where we built factories for manufacturing the system. By 1990, we had two factories, one in Ipswich and one in Birmingham, where were manufacturing components for systems to roll out to the local loop”.

At that time, the UK, Japan and the United States were leading the way in fibre optic technology and roll-out. Indeed, the first wide area fibre optic network was set up in Hastings, UK. But, in 1990, then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, decided that BT’s rapid and extensive rollout of fibre optic broadband was anti-competitive and held a monopoly on a technology and service that no other telecom company could do.

“Unfortunately, the Thatcher government decided that it wanted the American cable companies providing the same service to increase competition. So the decision was made to close down the local loop roll out and in 1991 that roll out was stopped. The two factories that BT had built to build fibre related components were sold to Fujitsu and HP, the assets were stripped and the expertise was shipped out to South East Asia.

“Our colleagues in Korea and Japan, who were working with quite closely at the time, stood back and looked at what happened to us in amazement. What was pivotal was that they carried on with their respective fibre rollouts. And, well, the rest is history as they say.

“What is quite astonishing is that a very similar thing happened in the United States. The US, UK and Japan were leading the world. In the US, a judge was appointed by Congress to break up AT&T. And so AT&T became things like BellSouth and at that point, political decisions were made that crippled the roll out of optical fibre across the rest of the western world, because the rest of the countries just followed like sheep.

“This created a very stop-start roll-out which doesn’t work with fibre optic – it needs to be done en masse. You needed economy of scale. You could not roll out fibre to the home for 1% of Europe and make it economic, you had to go whole hog.

“It’s like everything else in the electronics world, if you make one laptop, it costs billions; if you make billions of laptops it costs a few quid”.

Immediately after that decision by Thatcher’s government, the UK fell far behind in broadband speeds and, to this day, has never properly recovered. When the current government came to power it pledged that the UK would have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015 and 90% of homes will be connected to superfast broadband by 2017.

But, as Dr Cochrane explains, there are two things wrong with this. Firstly, the government’s definition of superfast broadband is 24Mbps. Secondly, comparing against Europe is pointless. “Western nations blindly compare with each other. There’s no point in saying ‘we’re better than the French, we’re better than the Germans’ – that’s not the point. Are we better than the Japanese, the Koreans and other competing nations?”

“[In Southeast Asia] they roared ahead. The Japanese in particular formulated a plan. While we were faffing about with half an Mbps ‘being sufficient’ the Japanese were rolling out 10Mbps. When we got to 2Mbps they were rolling out 100Mbps. Hong Kong in 2012 already had a gigabit both ways. In 1999 Japan already had 50Mbps universally and South Korea was comfortably using 4G by 2006. In the UK there’s no vision, mission or plan, we’re engaged in a random walk into the future”.

It all comes down to bandwidth

The UK’s fibre rollout is mostly Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC), rather than Fibre To The Home (FTTH). What’s the difference? Well, FTTH is fibre optic cable directly to the home, whereas FTTC is fibre optic cable to your nearest cabinet, with copper wire taking the signal the last leg of the journey. The copper limits speeds to 80Mbps, compared with 1,000Mbps or more available in all-fibre networks.

Dr Cochrane explained: “Fibre To The Home gives you an infinity of bandwidth, both ways, that you can upgrade forever, and it’s symmetric. If you go for Fibre To The Cabinet, you finish up with an asymmetric service. Now, this is really important. Why? How about the cloud, the cloud is not an asymmetric service, video conferencing is not an asymmetric service, so the whole ethos of the telecoms industry has been skewed by decision makers who think that the future of the internet is watching TV or movies, which it isn’t”.

“Businesses rely on symmetric bandwidth for cloud computing and video conferencing and this lack of bandwidth will put us slowly into a second world status.

“For example, I am sitting here, I work all over the world and say I want to upload a 350MB file. 350MB is not huge. With my old broadband, when I had less than 0.5Mbps upload you’d start in the morning and finish sometime in the middle of the night. Now I’ve got 32Mbps upload, I can actually watch it going. If I was in Hong Kong it would be instantaneous. Imagine having a discussion and putting a 10 second delay between each word, it wouldn’t work.”

New technologies, too, are hampered by low bandwidth, which has a direct effect on our ability to embrace revolutionary concepts. IBM’s Watson, the learning super-computer that functions through the cloud and is able to give evidence-based medical diagnoses, will fail in the UK because a lack of bandwidth, according to Dr Cochrane.

“If you look at the story of IBM Watson, it’s moving into the medical industry in the United States and you will be able soon to have an app with which you can configure Watson for your industry. It’s going to change everything, from investment banking to the legal industry. That sort of service, being able to get remote diagnostics, can only occur if you’ve got bandwidth”.

The future isn’t so bright for the UK when it comes to broadband, and that’s largely owing to an administration taking the wrong path 24 years ago. Unless there’s massive investment in broadband infrastructure and a complete rethink at the highest levels of government, the UK will only fall further behind.

“The UK will be frozen out of cloud computing because we don’t have bandwidth, worst of all we don’t have symmetric bandwidth. And the UK network cannot support the population in the cloud. It will be OK if you’re in a hotspot for bandwidth, and there are some hotspots of bandwidth in the UK, but for the most part the population will be frozen out.

“Ergo, this will hit the bottom line – it all comes down to GDP. If businesses can’t operate, the UK won’t generate money”.

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