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February 19, 2016

The “Northern Powerhouse” still has some of Britain’s worst broadband speeds

By City Monitor Staff

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

When you think about the north-south divide, and the “Northern Powerhouse” policy which is (honestly, definitely) going to fix it, you probably think of the difference in wages and living standards. Or maybe, if you’re that bit geekier, you think about the poor quality of public transport in the north –00 the impossibility of living in Manchester and working in Leeds, for example, without spending a third of your life stuck in traffic on the M62.

One aspect of the north-south divide you probably don’t think about is the difference in internet speeds. But seriously, look at this, though:

The dark green dots, cities where you can be all but guaranteed superfast broadband – that is, a network using fibre optic cables rather than phone lines – are almost exclusively in the Midlands and points south. The white dots, where as many as a third of postcodes don’t have such technology, are almost exclusively in the north.

To be fair, most of the north’s bigger cities (Manchester, Liverpool et al.) fall somewhere in between these two extremes – but the bad news doesn’t end there. A trip into the CityMetric archive brought out this chart, using Ofcom data, showing the average speed of broadband connections in Britain’s major cities back in 2014. The Northern Powerhouse cities are in dark blue:

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All of which raises a question: is a powerhouse really a powerhouse when it can’t even stream Netflix?

Who’s to blame for this disparity is not exactly clear. Broadband speeds are largely dependent on the quality of “last -mile” infrastructure (if you think of broadband networks as a tree, these are the twigs, rather than the trunk). It’s internet providers themselves that provide that – indeed, European rules on state aid make it difficult for the state to plug the gap even if it wants to.

But broadband providers are private companies: they’re going to focus their investment on those places where they think it’ll make a profit. That means they have an incentive to prioritise those cities that are full of rich consumers and demanding corporate customers ahead of those that aren’t.

Obviously relatively poor broadband speeds aren’t a cause of a north-south divide, if only because it’s been in existence since Sir Tim Berners-Lee was in short trousers. But, with an economy that’s increasingly dependent on big data and connectivity, they are not going to make it easier to close it.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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