High speed broadband: Korea can. Why can’t we?

This was originally published in Personal Computer World as part of a feature on Ultrafast Broadband I wrote in 2008.

Take a look around online, and you’ll often find people pointing out that other countries have cheaper and faster provision than the UK – and it’s true. But, sadly, that doesn’t mean that we can necessarily have the same, and there are some important factors that are often overlooked.

For example, in many parts of Europe, cable television is much more prevalent, and passes more than 90% of homes, giving both easier access to the network, and greater economies of scale. In the UK, the comparable figure is 50% – and the cable industry has only come together as one in the last two years, after starting as a huge patchwork of organisations; on the continent, consolidation happened much sooner.

But cable’s not the only reason – it turns out that two of our key British obsessions also count against us in the broadband stakes – houses and mortgages. Places like Korea, where just about everyone who wants it can have blisteringly fast broadband aren’t like the UK. With our old housing stock and dislike of living in flats, 80% of British properties are houses (according to the Office for National Statistics). In London there are more purpose-built flats, but it’s still only 32%. Compare that with Seoul, where flats were just 4% of housing in 1970, but had grown to 53% by 2006. Installing a high speed link to an apartment block means one fibre can serve hundreds of homes, rather than just the one that would be the case for a typical house, or a handful for a small converted house.

And our desire to own properties makes things complicated too; it’s much easier to install high speed broadband services, like those from Ask4, at the building stage, along with all the other utilities, but our slow rate of building means that’s only just starting to happen. And while you can install connections as part of a refurbishment, as Ask4’s Jonathan Burrows explained “That’s much easier when the whole building is owned by one company. Otherwise you have to make a separate legal agreement with each occupier.”

So, while it may well be true that some countries are doing better than we are when it comes to provision of high speed broadband, it’s sadly not an issue that can be looked at in purely technical terms.

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