The UK government is working towards achieving the fastest broadband in Europe by 2015. A vital service with an ambitious target; delivering on this promise will be no mean feat. The UK has just three years to improve the nationwide broadband infrastructure so it can cope with connection speeds of up to 24Mbps for every home and business. The national average connection speed is currently just 9Mbps, and demand on services will continue to increase over the coming years. In fact, a target of 24Mbps may even start to look pretty meagre before long.
Government initiatives so far include the ten cities project, in which several major UK cities have received a share of a £114 million investment to join the superfast revolution. There's also a joint initiative with the European Council to bring speeds of up to 30Mbps to every home and business in Europe by 2020. It is unsurprising to see cities like London, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham being chosen for the first wave of superfast connections, but what of the people still living in broadband blackspots, or "not-spots", as they have been dubbed? This amounts to around 10% of the UK population, and surprisingly the is not just limited to the rural areas we may imagine when we think of the Digital Divide.
Blackspots and slow-spots can occur for a variety of reasons. Low quality lines, long distances from the exchange serving the connection and interference from fibre optic telephone lines are common problems. While these issues most often occur in rural areas, towns and cities are not immune; with locations including Carlisle and Dumfries being noted for their poor coverage.
So why are some areas of the UK so far behind in the broadband rollout? And does it matter? The short answer is that yes, it matters - universal access to a service which is the cornerstone of business and commerce is extremely important and worthy of the government's attention.
The difference in broadband speeds is often measured against factors such as how quickly users can download videos, or whether they can access services like BBC iPlayer. This can make it seem trivial - should it be a government priority to ensure that everyone in the UK can access luxuries like online TV? Well, it's not really that simple. Anywhere where residents are unable to download the latest episode of Downton Abbey there will be local businesses struggling to upload vital updates to their website, or build their businesses in a competitive market that could be national or global. Rating connections speeds against services like the iPlayer makes the discussion accessible; but it doesn't get to the heart of the issue.
From a social and community perspective, vital health and information services are becoming increasingly internet based. Everyone should have the right to access all these services equally, and if problems getting online are creating barriers for some people it's clear that decent broadband access should be seen as no more of a luxury than posting a letter with the Royal Mail. In a digital age, be it for economic, social or welfare reasons, it does matter if some areas in a country are lacking in what have become standard technologies.
Some communities are now taking broadband service provision into their own hands, building community funded networks and lobbying local government for support. Projects such as Broadband NotSpot push initiatives to bring fibre connections to all homes and businesses, and are collating a user generated map of blackspots and slow spots across the UK. These projects represent a proactive attempt to highlight the severity of the issue for some groups, and give the major broadband providers such as TalkTalk a resource to find potential customers and plan their provision accordingly. Where these projects hit a wall of course is lack of funding and manpower. Persuading your community to self-fund a resource that most places in the country can access without a second thought is understandably a challenge.
So what should be government do? They must progress the superfast broadband rollout, but perhaps more care should be taken to ensure that an impressive average connection speed across the country isn't the only goal. This will ultimately be insufficient if every home and business does not have a connection that provides them with quick, reliable internet access; and this means putting rural areas and slow spots much nearer the front of the queue.