First published in The Huffington Post Technology Blog section.
When we launched the campaign to Fix Britain’s Internet ten weeks ago (alongside Sky, Vodafone and the Federation of Communication Services), our aim was to give a voice to the people up and down the country who are well and truly fed up with their internet service. Fed up with slow speeds and unreliable connections; fed up of missed appointments and long wait times for connection and repair. And fed up, most of all, with being told everything is fine when their experience clearly shows that it isn’t.
We know their problems are real, because all of us who have to use the BT-owned ‘Openreach network’ to supply our customers hear about it directly from them day in, day out. While BT continues to own and control that national network, there is - frustratingly - a limit to what we can do to help. But we were determined to show we were listening, and more importantly to help make their voice heard in a debate which directly concerns them.
All too often regulatory battles are played out in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall, and ‘public consultations’ end up being the business of everyone except the public. So when Ofcom called a once-in-a-decade consultation on the future of BT Openreach, we decided to make sure the public had their say. And the results were overwhelming. 100,000 people responded, making this one of the single largest public responses to Ofcom on any issue. But it’s not just the sheer volume of people who responded that is important. It’s what we learned along the way, and it speaks volumes about how people are feeling about their internet, and why.
We learned that 56% of the population believe they are unable to perform simple tasks using their internet today, and a one in eight people believe their internet is actually getting worse. Neuroscientist Dr David Lewis told us that slow speed and poor internet connections don’t just waste our time, they can actually be detrimental to our health and wellbeing - as the four million people reportedly experiencing stress and anxiety as a result of slow and unreliable internet today will attest.
We found that UK cities are unable to compete with foreign villages for their internet speeds. According to recent data, London’s broadband speeds are more than five times slowed than Cosoba in Romania (population 2,490). Manchester (population 2.5m) has an average download speed of 23.61Mbps, compared to Fors in Sweden (population 860) which has recorded speeds of 40.6Mbps. This is unsurprising given the UK lags behind the world on cutting edge ultrafast ‘pure fibre’ networks. The UK has just 2% ultrafast, in comparison to Lithuania’s 37% and Uruguay’s 48%.
Even across the UK, we learned that the disparities are huge. While some areas have clearly received more attention from BT than others, other parts of the country responded so loudly to the campaign that their MPs postbags were ‘overflowing’ with responses. Among these, Norfolk, Suffolk, Somerset, East Anglia and Dorset between them made up over 15% of all the responses to Ofcom. We received woeful reports from Stratton Strawless in Broadland, which has some of the worst internet in the country; and Purton in Gloucester, which calls itself ‘the town that BT forgot’.
And it became abundantly clear that this issue affects everyone. We heard from a plethora of different groups – farmers like Aled Evans whose ‘painfully slow’ broadband sped is putting his business at risk. Unsurprising, when 31% of farmers in the East Anglia region receive a connection speed of under 2MBps. We heard from small business owners like Karen Chadda, whose marketing consultancy has suffered from delays, wasted time and lost business because of problems with Openreach. Gamers too turned out to be passionate about fixing Britain’s Internet. Despite the UK having the 6th largest video game market in the world, the gaming community told us loud and clear that their internet was letting them down. Professional gamer Ashley Maree told us problems with her internet are ‘an online gamers worst nightmare’.
Most powerful, perhaps, was the message sent loud and clear by the public in a Comres poll last week. When asked what infrastructure projects the Government should be prioritising, including High Speed Rail 2, Hinkley Point C nuclear power station and Heathrow Airport’s 3rd runway, an extraordinary 50% of UK adults voted for better broadband. 82% said upgrading the national internet network should be one of the Government’s top three priorities. With figures as definitive of these, the ask of the Government and the regulator is clear – the British People want you to Fix Britain’s Internet.
I want to say a huge thank you to every one of the 100,000 people who took the time (possibly using a slow, unreliable internet connection…) to respond to the campaign and take the opportunity to tell Ofcom directly what they would like to see happen. It has been a privilege to hear your stories, and I can assure you we will keep fighting for you. We remain firm in our belief that we can only start to address these problems head-on when Openreach is freed from BT to make its own investment decisions, and to use its profits improving its service instead of them disappearing up into BT Group. In the meantime, anyone who wants to make their voice heard can do so by visiting www.fixbritainsinternet.co.uk and help spread the word with family and friends.