Are the UK's plans to revive fibre optic broadband enough?

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A new scheme by the government will see fibre optic cables run through water pipes throughout the country. The scheme will not only bring fibre optic broadband to hard-to-reach areas, but also help monitor for leaks throughout the country. It’s a smart move that’s not only environmentally friendly but also a key improvement in our infrastructure. 

Infrastructure is one of those topics that’s not exciting, but from a tech perspective, it's incredulously important. Typically seen as one of the more developed nations in the world, it’s actually surprising to find out that the UK is ranked 48th in the world for average internet connection speed. At 92Mbps, we are trailing behind the likes of South Korea, Hong Kong and even America, which are all around 200Mbps. 

Fibre Optic = Speed

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Fibre optic has been around for some time, but coverage across the UK is still pretty spotty. There are some areas where it just isn’t feasible to rip up roads, paths and earths in order to lay wire down. While 95% of the UK now has access to fibre optic broadband, there’s still 5% who do not. Only 12% have access to full fibre broadband, which can allow users to reach upwards of 1,000Mbps. 

Internet infrastructure is a necessity, for commercial and societal purpose. As we have learned over the past year, we now rely on the internet more than ever. Whether it’s working from home or school kids studying, we need access to the internet. Slow internet speeds can seriously affect our ability to work, which is why it is so surprising that our internet speeds are so behind the rest of the world.  

Moving fibre optic to our water pipes is a smart move! It finally ensures that those in remote areas can access speedier internet. Those living in more built-up areas can expect the option to upgrade over the next decade. Openreach is currently planning to extend the availability of full fibre broadband to more homes in the UK. Between this new plan to extend typical broadband services and the full fibre rollout, the future certainly looks a little faster for UK internet users. 

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Magaret Thatcher's war on fibre optic

Margaret Thatcher is probably a name you weren’t expecting to hear today, but she actually played a key role in ensuring UK internet speeds were far behind everyone else. In the 80s BT worked to start transitioning the UK from copper wire connections to fibre. The company had concluded that in the future our infrastructure would need to shed restrictive copper and move towards fibre, which is far more capable of transferring data. 

In the 1990s, BT built two factories in Birmingham and Ipswich. Both were responsible for creating systems capable of handling fibre optic speeds, and this was set to be the beginning of the UK’s internet-focused future. However, Margaret Thatcher decided that the UK’s internet infrastructure needed to be more competitive and decided to open it up to American companies instead. The expertise gained by those staff working at BT was shipped out to South East Asia, which now has some of the fastest internet speeds in the world. That focus on competition held our internet speed back, as businesses were far more focused on segmenting services for profit. 

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That small decision almost 20 years ago was what set us behind other countries and cost us what could now be one of the most advanced internet infrastructures in the world. Even though she has been gone for a few years, Margaret Thatcher is still finding ways to bring us all down. 

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Is it enough?

Creating a fibre optic system that runs through our water pipes is a great step, so is the larger roll out of full fibre broadband. However, is that enough to undo the damage caused by Thatcher’s government over 20 years ago? The problem we now face in our country is that the internet is still seen as a privilege and not a basic necessity. As we saw last year, there’s a digital divide in the UK. Kids could not access internet services whi9le out of school, making home working incredibly difficult. 

Pushing for faster speeds is obviously great for our infrastructure, but that infrastructure also needs to be accessible by all. By creating a basic level of accessibility for everyone in the UK, we can ensure a free and accessible internet for all. Those who want excessive speeds can absolutely pay for them, but we should also ensure everyone has access to a speedy minimum level of internet across the UK. Fibre optic internet that saves water is impressive, but it still doesn’t address the digital divide that’s growing across the United Kingdom. 

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