Broadband: How fast is fast enough?


Ofcom's Advisory Committee for England will be revisiting an issue that continues to be unresolved: How fast must internet speeds be to meet our needs in Britain?

We know there are discrepancies in speed of networks within Britain, such as between deep rural and urban areas.

These are relatively straightforward to discuss on such criteria as equity, and efforts to enable rural areas to develop a digital economy, and not disadvantage businesses, such as B&Bs in rural areas, where the lack of broadband connections can undermine their viability.

International comparisons

International discrepancies are more problematic. Does it matter if South Korea has faster broadband networks that the UK? Will the UK lag behind on related areas, such as in user-driven innovations in applications and services?

However, it is not surprising to hear many raising questions about how fast is fast enough, when the race for superfast broadband at ever faster speeds could seem unnecessary and a waste of resources. In this respect, I am reminded of the UK in 2001, when internet users were satisfied by and large with dial-up modems over phone lines at low speeds. It was good enough for handling email or to browse the Web: What else would one want to do? Many things it turned out. I’m therefore afraid that current scepticism over increasing speeds could be just as short-sighted.

Expect the unexpected

What will we need this for? Eli Noam at Columbia University has made good arguments for capacity driving the development of emersive video. Multi-point video communication seldom works well on today’s networks. But there are likely to be applications we can not even anticipate in a faster networked society.

What do you think?

Bill Dutton is Chairman of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for England


Good post Bill

I'm as much of a speed freak as the next guy or gal, but sometimes have to stop to think about why. I get a warm glow when the speed test shows 50Mb/s or even more impressively 34Mb/s on my 4g connection, however, most of that capability sits idle most of the time.

For instance, I frequently have two HD TV streams running, one FPS gaming Stream, Spotify playing and still enough space to squeeze in the odd few dozen emails.Taken together, that lot doesn't even need an average 12Mb/s (the UK average broadband speed at the end of 2012).

Certainly, we should strive for equality of service across the population, regardless of location, but I wonder if we are using the correct metric to define broadband roll-out success.

Of course, it is easy to say that higher definition services will need more bandwidth - but hold on, as we start to think about UHD TV or even super hi-Vision (the generation after the next one), we find that improved video coding reduces the need for much greater bandwidth. So today¹s 5Mb/s HD stream becomes tomorrow's 7.5Mb/s Ultra HD stream.

Immersive video? - maybe, but there's much more to that that simple bandwidth. It's a proposition without a proven market - just like 3D!