We are lagging behind in high-speed broadband, the revolutionary tool that is turning media industries inside out and empowering consumers to create their own content. With 50% of homes connected, the UK is currently top of the table for broadband take-up among industrialised nations.
The problem is the future. We need to install the almost unlimited capacity of optic fibres to the home to replace copper wires - the same phone lines that have served us for over 50 years. While BT is planning speeds of 24Mbps on those old wires by 2012, France Telecom is already trialling 100Mbps, as are other countries.
This debate is over 25 years old. In the early 80s a privatised BT offered to lay fibres to the home if the government would allow it to deliver home entertainment (TV and videos). Mrs Thatcher said no, hoping to encourage competition from cable companies. Now, with so many companies offering broadband, prices have fallen and, as industry-government forum the Broadband Stakeholder Group warned, no one has the money to lay down fibre for the future. Meanwhile the US and Japan are racing ahead with fibre optics.
Years ago, the case against investing in broadband was that the operators couldn't see where the demand would come from. That looks plain silly today as video-on-demand, internet TV, mobile TV, virtual worlds and other domestic uses have created an insatiable demand for bandwidth. Engineers have done brilliantly in compressing data so much that a copper wire can carry TV, phone calls and the internet simultaneously - but technologies move on.
The current operators may not be allowed to vacillate for long. In other parts of Europe, including France, municipalities have stepped in to encourage them to upgrade. Who dares, wins.
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