Gareth Huw Davies


Broadband – never knew we needed it, now can’t do without it

Always on: UK's connection to the world

Always on: UK’s connection to the world

I first signed up to broadband in the early 2000s. What did we do before?, the under 20s might wonder. We used something called a “dial-up” connection, which now feels really antique. Whenever you wanted to send an e-mail or check something on the internet, you pressed a key and the computer went through the seemingly interminable motions of dialing into your server.

Yes, we used that curious procedure in this very Millennium.

Most people will never do anything as antediluvian again, according to a survey, published this week. Such is their attachment to the world through their computer, 8 out of 10 UK consumers say they would give up TV or their mobile phone rather than home broadband.

Put this apparent technological addiction – or, if your prefer, growing dependence – another way. Only 2 per cent would choose to give up their broadband if they had to sacrifice one of those three services.

The survey about our broadband and internet usage was conducted by Thinkbroadband, the UK’s largest independent UK broadband information website. 10,896 people responded.

Thinkbroadband is an independent UK broadband information website, now over ten years old. It started when broadband services were bring trialled; its staff have deep experience in this area.

The company’s survey found the need for constant connectivity – to social media, entertainment, news and communications – was overwhelming. 82 per cent of users said they installed broadband to provide “always on” web access. Two thirds (65 per cent) of young people regard the internet as a “very important” part of their social life.

Our provider is Talktalk and I’m happy with their servce, with certain misgivings over an issue which may not be their fault – I outline it below. We used to subscribe to BT but gave them up about 10 years ago after some poor service, and I do mean poor. BT may have improved, but after the treatment we received, I have no intention of going back.

Far and away my personal issue with my broadband service is the number of times our connection drops. I live in a village in Southern England, and I know without a clock exactly when the schoolchildren have arrived home – about 3.45 – because this is the time of day when I suddenly find I am offline and my wi-fi is “looking for networks.” It usually comes back after a few minutes but is then liable to drop out again in the coming hours.

Another time when I lose wi-fi connection is at a seemingly random time such as 5.55 or 6.55. No sense in that, you might think. Actually there is. It’s when the big evening “soaps”, Emmerdale and Neighbours, finish, and people turn to their computers, tablets  or snartphones. It’s my theory although I can find no confirmation.

The survey notes that over half of 18-24 year olds (56%) spend in excess of 6 hours online each day. The most popular time to go online is between 6pm and midnight.

Two other findings in the survey support this possible explanation of connections falling because of too much pressure on the local network:

  • 65% of users (and this must cover most older schoolchildren now) connect their mobile phone to their home broadband connection;
  • Over a third have a games console

I followed this with my provider, but made no progress. I will assume it’s a result of living in a place without sufficient capacity. Have we considered switching? No, because losing signal is more an annoyance than a serious imposition, and its feels like a lot of trouble for an uncertain outcome. What if the same happens with another operator?

I seem to be in a minority here, however. The survey found that 56% of users review their choice of broadband package at least once a year. 28% rarely review it. Users aged 65+ are twice as likely (56%) to stay with their broadband provider for more than four years as compared to users aged 18-24 (28%).

Interestingly I’ve inceasingly suffered lost connections at the time kids are home from school when using a public broadband connection in the library in my local town, and I assume that service doesn’t come from Talktalk.

This signal dropping point doesn’t seem to be covered in the survey. Perhaps a question for this year’s poll?

Another interesting finding, which must concern the satellite and cable companies is that a quarter of respondents have an Internet-enabled TV/device that allows them to connect their television on the Internet to consume on-demand content.

With the advance of “smart TVs”, consumers will be able to access so much entertainment, on demand, from new providers, such as Netflix, and even Google, as well as catching up on output they missed via iPlayer. All they will need is an internet connection, and a credit card.

The prospect of super-fast and ultra-fast broadband (the sort available in South Korea, for example) seems too distant to even contemplate. In the survey quality and reliability of a broadband connection (36%) was cited by respondents as the most important factor when selecting a broadband service, with only 21% giving download speeds as the most important factor.

Speed was important for us until recently. We first tried to watch a BBC programme on iPlayer three years ago, and gave up as the computer desperately tried to keep its downloading ahead of its our watching. Today we hardly have a problem. I assume super-fast and ultra-fast broadband will be important when we try to dowload a feature film in the space of a few minutes. Not yet.

There is one finding that, at first, puzzled me. 18 per cent of respondents said they regularly go online between midnight and 6 a.m. There are either many insomniacs out there, or lonely people who need to interact. Or, shall we say, people conducting on-line relationships. Let’s not go there.

All in all, Thinkbroadband have put together a useful account of what people think of, and want from, broadband, this very 21st Century institution. We never imagned living with it. Now we can’t imagine living without it.

A spokesman noted: “Our study reveals that internet service providers need to better understand what people are really using the internet for and why, and how they can best meet these needs.”