When, during the recent London Tech Week, Mayor Sadiq Khan declared his ambition to make London the world’s leading smart city , or when, last week, he declared in east London that the capital was open for global business, his message took a little time to sink in.
That’s because the state of broadband across the capital is at best patchy and at worst hopeless, the Mayor’s declarations left buffering somewhere on outdated copper wires in Victorian culverts.
London ranks 26 out of 33 capital cities for its average download speeds and even places like York, Coventry and Edinburgh can claim to be Gigabit Cities where speeds reach 1,000Mbps. Parts of Canary Wharf, North Greenwich and, in particular, Rotherhithe, are hit with slow speeds.
This inability to compete with the likes of Seoul or or Singapore or Sydney, undercuts London’s constant claim that it is the best place in the world to do business and threatens its competitiveness.
That’s according to a new report by the London Assembly regeneration committee which heard tales of “not-spots” and “digital deserts” in a city dominated by BT Openreach, the reviled and inefficient near-monopoly operator in the world of digital infrastructure.
Its dead-hand on digital development has ensured that copper wire is still king in London in world where full fibre is the norm. Only 3% of homes in the UK have full fibre compared to 83% in Spain while the capital is in the bottom five UK cities for 4G coverage – just as competitors are gearing up for 5G.
Full fibre brings high speed data directly into the home – although the bandwidth is still shared – and is different from standard fibre which takes cables to a roadside cabinet before encountering “last mile” copper wires.
Tim Stranack, of Community Fibre told the committee: “Only three countries don’t appear on the [full fibre] league table because they have less than one per cent – Ireland, Greece and the UK. And it’s going to be a disaster if we don’t wake up to the fact that full fibre is needed.”
Navin Shah AM, chair of the regeneration committee, said: “London’s digital connectivity is frankly embarrassing in some areas and will no doubt lead to major issues in terms of London’s global attractiveness as a place to live, work and do business. We need to act before it’s too late and London’s success is threatened.”
In the face of foot-dragging, corporations, councils and collectives (like the Rotherhithe Broadband Group) are filling the gap. The City of London has a particular problem because of the layout of its streets and the height of its buildings but it plans to install a new £5million gigabit wi-fi mesh network, the largest investment in wireless infrastructure in the capital.
But the ability of high profile influencers and companies to make their own arrangement relieves the pressure on BT Openreach , which recently was forced to separate out from parent company BT in order to dampen criticism that its go-slow was institutionally mandated.
The report London Buffering comes in the same week that the Government formally launched its £400million investment in full fibre, seeking commercial partners to bring the total up to £1billion
Secretary to the Treasury Andrew Jones said on Monday: “Gone will be the days where parents working from home see their emails grind to a halt while a family member is streaming Game Of Thrones in the next room.”
But the figure was dismissed as insignificant compared to the scale of the problem.
Labour’s Tom Watson said: “The reality remains that we are on track to have just 7% full fibre coverage by 2020. It’s not good enough and it’ll leave Britain in the slow lane for years to come.”
Think Broadband said : “It’s all very good producing reports and giving speeches, but what is needed is concrete action, such as refusing planning permission on all new-builds unless full fibre connectivity is guaranteed and encouraging private landlords to ensure decent connectivity is available.”
Meanwhile, in London, the committee urged the Mayor to use all his powers at his disposal to fast-forward full fibre; for boroughs to produce “local connectivity plans”; and for TfL to provide access to its ducts.
Assembly member Shah said: “More can be done to solve London’s connectivity problems and with the imminent appointment of the Chief Digital Officer, the Mayor can provide real strategic leadership in this essential area.”
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