updated March 2016
Broadband is what we call fast internet. You can choose to get your broadband through your telephone line, or superfast fibre optic cables.
Fibre optic is broadband that runs over cables in the ground, whilst ADSL broadband runs over copper telephone wires.
All of the companies on the broadband score table use BT’s infrastructure with the exception of Tooway which uses satellite technology and Virgin Media which uses it owns fibre optic cables.
BT's superfast broadband
Shortly after the 2010 election, the coalition government announced a plan for Britain to have the “best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015”. To many observers the goal looked unachievable from the outset. Now it appears the government has actually made things worse. Shaun Fensom explains more.
In order to achieve its target, the UK government set aside £530m to help reach the ‘final third’ of the population in areas where BT has no plans to extend its ‘superfast’ service. This programme offered a unique opportunity to achieve two things: make a start building the pure fibre network the UK will eventually need, and bring some competition into a market dominated by two big infrastructure players.
Instead it has arguably achieved the opposite. The sorry story of how was displayed in gory detail in a report by Margaret Hodge’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published in September.
Witnesses told the PAC how most of the money has ended up going to BT, undermining the efforts of communities and small providers. When the government asked county councils to come up with plans to fix the holes in their broadband coverage – mostly in rural areas – they stressed that the best way to comply with EU competition rules would be to use the government’s approved list of suppliers. But as time went on, all but one of the suppliers on the list pulled out, some openly complaining that the funding terms favoured one supplier – BT.
The PAC concluded that the government had “mismanaged” the project by awarding all 26 rural broadband contracts to BT and that BT had “exploited its quasi-monopoly position”. The committee found ministers were failing to check whether BT’s bids were reasonably priced and said there had been “wildly inaccurate” estimates of costs.
Committee chair Margaret Hodge told the BBC: “The taxpayer has been ripped off with £1.2bn going to the shareholders of BT."
“If you (the government) had devised it differently, had bigger areas for the contracts so you could spread your costs more, allowed different technologies to be used and insisted on a 100% coverage, we would have found other people in the game and I bet we would have spent less of the taxpayers money.”
Progress has been so slow that rural communities have taken matters into their own hands. An excellent example is B4RN, a community-owned cooperative that has raised funds from residents and is rolling out a network in rural Lancashire.
It’s a pure fibre optic network, not the hybrid solution favoured by BT (which relies on old copper telephone lines). B4RN told the county council which villages it planned to connect – good news you’d think for Lancashire, leaving more government money to spend on the rest of the county. But earlier this year residents of one village on the list received letters saying that BT would be rolling out the council’s superfast broadband scheme to the village – ahead of most of the rest of the county.
B4RN supporters pointed out that BT’s hybrid technology would struggle to deliver good speeds given the village’s remote location. No problem said the council – BT would be installing 100% fibre – a privilege BT has reserved for a handful of areas in the UK. Thankfully the political heat from the PAC forced a re-think by the council, and the threat to the community scheme has been lifted.
With the government funding BT’s compromise technology and the UK falling further behind countries that are investing in new fibre networks, far-sighted communities along with some small private firms are ready to step up to the plate.
It will take more political heat to ensure the cards are not stacked against them.
Sky, O2 home broadband and BE broadband are all owned by BSkyB whose major shareholder is Rupert Murdoch’s rightly demonised News Corporation. News Corporation’s list of dodgy activities include phone hacking at the News of the World, Page 3 in The Sun and the alleged lobbying of Tony Blair in support of the Iraq war. A study conducted in 2003 by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that the two networks notably likely to present pro-war commentary were News Corp’s Fox Network and CBS.
See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.
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1 The Press and Public Misperceptions About the Iraq War – Harvard Nieman Report, Summer 2004