The internet is a bigger part of the British economy than education, healthcare or construction. Britons generate more money online than any other G20 nation. But when it comes to high-speed broadband, the country is falling behind.
The UK's average download speed is ranked 16th in Europe, according to IT company Akamai, and experts warn that the country is beginning to miss out as a result.
frozen out of the next industrial revolution - In terms of broadband, the UK is at the back of the pack. We're beaten by almost every other European country and Asia simply leaves us for dust
While other countries are racing to replace the old copper telephone networks with fibre optic cables running right to household doorsteps, and capable of almost unlimited speeds, the UK has settled for a compromise. DUH!!!
BT Group, with a network that reaches nearly every home in the country, is laying fibre to cabinets in the streets, and relying on copper to carry the broadband signal the last leg to the doorstep. Today, that means speeds limited to 80 megabits per second (Mbps), compared with 1,000Mbps or more available in all-fibre networks.
Even Russia already has 12m homes with fibre to the doorstep. France has 6m and says 70% of premises will be connected by 2020. The UK has just 400,000, and there are no targets to increase that number.
Ministers rank broadband as one of Britain's top four infrastructure priorities, alongside roads, rail and energy, and George Osborne has committed £200bn to these sectors over the next five years. But a fraction of that will go to broadband – just £1.3bn from local and central government has been earmarked.
If the UK had committed as much as the Chinese per head of population, some £7bn of taxpayer funds would be invested. Australia is pushing fibre to 93% of homes by 2018. In the UK, this would cost up to £29bn.
The government has made a rather vague promise that we will have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015. And by 2017, 90% of homes will have access to superfast speeds, with the final 10%, the most remote dwellings, getting a basic 2Mbps service.
BT says it will pay for two-thirds of the work itself, but the government and local councils are finding most of the money needed to reach the final third of the population through a process being organised by the BDUK quango.
Superfast is defined by the government as 24Mbps and over. BT says two-thirds of homes will have access to its Infinity product of up to 80Mpbs if they want it by the end of 2014, with rival Virgin Media offering even higher speeds via its cable network to 12m of the UK's 26m homes.
No matter how quickly BT digs, though, fibre evangelists say that by 2017, the national targets will be out of date. We will have moved from needing superfast to wishing for ultrafast broadband. Television and Skype video calling will demand more than BT's hybrid network can cope with.
"These targets are fulfilling the demands of the past," says Boris Ivanovic, the entrepreneur whose Hyperoptic group is selling fibre connections to upmarket UK apartment blocks. "Fibre to the cabinet is a stop-gap solution, and will not put the UK in a leadership position."
He says the £17bn committed by the government to a high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham could cover most of the costs of a future-proof all-fibre network. "If we had those links we wouldn't need to travel as often to Birmingham and we wouldn't be polluting the environment as much."
With the number of screens per household increasing, watching television is becoming an increasingly solitary activity. Even with a 100Mbps connection, a Blu-ray quality film takes 13 minutes to download. BT's top-tier broadband services can cope with streaming several high-definition channels at once, but ultrahigh definition is on its way. The Japanese state broadcaster NHK will use it to record the London Olympics, with public screenings promised, and speeds of 100 to 200 Mbps are needed to transmit a single channel.