Internet revolution: Why broadband matters more than the railways

The internet has changed Britain in just a few years

Two million homes are now connected to superfast broadband. Matt Warman hails a revolution

In July 1991, the world wide web was accessed from the UK for the first time; fast forward just 24 years and millions use it every day to shop, sell, watch films and work. Often all at the same time. The growth of access to the web has been more rapid and more radical than the growth of motorways, the railways, the postal service and arguably even mains water. It has allowed everybody to do things that simply weren’t possible before and it has scarcely begun to really influence our lives.

Today the government announced that 2million homes and businesses now have access to superfast broadband, offering genuinely instant access to HD video, to the ability to work from home and to use phones, tablets games consoles and more simultaneously. The suggestion is that the target of 95 per cent of UK citizens having access to the web is in sight, and on track for the hoped-for 2017. With communications regulator Ofcom reporting that broadband data usage is doubling every year, it can’t come soon enough.

Getting here has been a troubled journey, and it’s not over yet. The initial target was for 90 per cent coverage by 2015, and many question whether the dash for speed of connection rather than geographical range has produced the right kind of benefits. While European Union funding has helped remote areas such as Cornwall, much of London and other major cities continue to have slow speeds because huge numbers of people seek to use limited resources and it’s harder to organise installation of improved equipment. The effect is to produce a very mixed map where many speeds remain far below those that service providers advertise.

But by focusing on speed, and with the help of PR initiatives such as London’s Tech City, the UK has burnished its reputation as Europe’s technology trailblazer. And all the while in the background the real work, largely in conjunction with BT, has been going on across the country.

This has involved the hiring of hundreds of former military personnel and billions of pounds in public money. Controversial as it is, many now think the plan of getting local authorities to run projects might have been better organised as a single national programme, and controversy continues to surround BT’s alleged failure to be more open about where and when it is planning to deploy upgrades.

But in conjunction with pilot projects, from church tower radiowave systems to satellite broadband, Britain has become the most digital nation in Europe.

The challenge that remains – aside from the completion of the project – is now threefold. First, the technological hurdles that prevent a full, superfast nation to rival South Korea and other world leaders must still be overcome. This in part is why politicians such as Boris Johnson have promised 5G mobile phones in London by 2020 and why850,000 homes are to get access to satellite broadband sooner rather than later. Second, consumers must be persuaded to take up the services now offered, having been convinced that they are neither too expensive nor without real-life uses for both work and play.

But third, Britain needs a culture change: above all else, the web allows a revolution in schooling, healthcare, work and leisure for one simple reason. It can now happen wherever, whenever and however people want. But progress will not really happen so long as schools insist on pupils attending physical classes regardless of whether they’re best for that particular lesson, so long as patients remains sceptical of consultations over Skype and so long as businesses continue the idiocy of believing working from home is the same as a day off, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Those changes will come eventually, in part because they are an economic necessity. Just as online shopping has changed our town centres – for better and for worse – so too online everything else will alter rush hour, our need for infrastructure and the assumption that the best businesses base themselves in our biggest cities. Passing 2million premises may sound like it’s a big deal, but for the web it’s just a stepping stone to something much bigger.