As the UK slumps to 31st fastest broadband in the world, Huawei and the Irish go 4.5G mobile

SUMMARY:

We have one of the highest levels of online business here in the UK, but we are now among the slowest when it comes to broadband infrastructure.

Press releases can be like busses: nothing comes for ages and then two come together. And sometimes, the arriving pair make a fascinating contrast to each other.

So it has been this week when, within some 30 minutes of each other, press releases from Chinese telecoms and big server vendor, Huawei, and telecoms analyst company Cable.co.uk slipped into the inbox.

The latter put some real numbers and credibility behind accusations about BT and its capabilities at delivering Internet services, while the former demonstrated not just that the BT-induced woes can be overcome, but that Ireland will start rolling out just such a solution by October this year.

Cable.co,uk has been responsible for a survey that has had widespread coverage recently. Based on research data collected by M-Lab, which conducted 63 million broadband speed tests across the world over a period of a year ending this May, the survey shows that the UK ranks 31st in the world.

Not only is it beaten by the likes of Singapore which, as might be expected, topped the list with an average speed of 55 Mbps, and top European nation, Sweden, which came second in the list, the UK average speed of 16.51 Mbps was even beaten by the likes of Romania and Bulgaria. And, as some UK-based contributors to diginomica can attest, 16 Mbps still remains an unfulfilled dream.

Here come the Irish

Meanwhile, Huawei and Ireland’s Imagine Communications Group have announced a strategic partnership that will allow the country to claim it is the first to start using a national wireless-to the-x (WTTx) network. This will be based on Huawei’s 4.5G mobile technology first talked about a year ago, which it sees as a technological halfway-house on the road to the implementation of 5G mobile services from around 2020 and beyond.

The intermediate 4.5G service has the potential to offer downlink speeds of over 1Gbps, and as it is built on some of the infrastructure required for future 5G services, such as Customer Premise Equipment, it can provide a major stepping stone along that road. And because it is a mobile service, it is cheaper to install as it does not require fibre connection to every premises.

Like the UK, Ireland has significant differences in the network infrastructure available to urban and rural areas. And even in areas where fibre is available, Huawei suggests that meeting the headline speed claims of 100Mbps is uncommon. The company also suggests that for the majority of users in regional and rural areas, x digital subscriber line (xDSL) services can be as slow as 3 Mbps.

And like the UK, Ireland announced bold national broadband plans that have, so far remained largely unfulfilled. In 2012, that plan was to make 30Mbps broadband services available to every home by 2020. However, the costs and logistics of providing the necessary FTTx infrastructure has so far meant that some 12,000 premises only have been connected.

Huawei claims that a limited commercial trial of the Imagine LTE fixed wireless access network, using a 70Mbps service, has seen 16,000 customers connected in less than a year, with over 100,000 more applying for the service. And having obtained 3.6GHz 5G licenses, Imagine expects to be the first operator outside of limited urban areas to provide 100Mbps-plus services to the rest of the market. Imagine will commence the rollout of its network in October with the objective of 85% market coverage by 2019.

And the importance of this?

If a number of individual factors are lumped together the importance should come clear. Digitalisation and business transformation are two of the key watchwords for all business around the world. If UK businesses can only play here slowly, or even not at all, then the aspirations – political, economic, cultural and whatever else – will be put at risk.

The whole point of embarking on digitalisation and transformational processes is that businesses no longer operate in isolation. Collaboration, and trust in the processes of collaboration, is now the lifeblood of business, and the key to that is the concept of `real-time’. Business `A’ needs to work with businesses `B’, `C’ and `D’ to fulfil the contract for product or service `X’ made with customer `Z’, and work with them (and increasingly the customer too) as though they are there, sitting across the desk.

Lastly, there is the fact that the UK is currently one of the top countries in the world for online retailing, with vast numbers of smartphone-owning consumers making purchases every day. But perhaps one of the most telling factoids here is the estimate by Postnord and Twenga Solutions that in 2015, 58% of those online purchases by UK consumers were made from overseas countries.

If the UK’s internal broadband infrastructure is poor then that figure will only rise, for consumers (and businesses for that matter) now increasing purchase on direct experience or recommendation of a supplier. If the brands consumers choose are consistently from overseas because of the weakness of the UK broadband infrastructure, then UK businesses will suffer. And in an increasingly globalised marketplace, it will very much in the interests of businesses to operate from wherever the processes of doing business are easy and fast.

And a final thought of some direct relevance to the Imagine/Huawei partnership and its focus on the regional/rural market sector. These are areas where the potential for new business start-ups is usually stifled by the lack of infrastructure and support services. They are also places where lots of political `brownie-points’ can be earned by liberating that potential. UK governments have consistently focused attention and resources in the exact opposite direction, and by concentrating resources into urban areas where it becomes difficult, highly disruptive, and costly to put in the required fibre infrastructure, there is a tendency for its availability to stall.

This must play its part in BT’s failure to significantly advance the UK’s fibre-to-the-premises penetration. At present this stands at around 2%, which compares badly with most other countries. Spain, for example, has 60% penetration.

My take

It will be interesting to see how this service works in practice, for it does seem to be an example of the obvious way to go. And if the UK does not follow suit quickly it may prove to be `too late’ much faster than many might expect. After all, Ireland is just a short hop away, is still in the EU, speaks the same language, and almost certainly has some very cost-effective rural locations for any business to move into. If it has a significantly better broadband infrastructure in place and working while BT moves at snail’s pace to achieve a small sub-set of the broadband bandwidth the Irish will have available, who could blame any business for considering such a move.

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