The U.K. has the highest rate of Internet usage of the five largest European countries (that is, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K.), according to newly released data from Ofcom, the U.K.'s state-appointed telecommunications sector regulator. Ofcom's scorecard analyzes Web activities in Britain and its European competitors, as of the end of 2011.
Its objective is to provide an objective assessment of how close the U.K. is coming to the government's goal of having superfast broadband (i.e., connections of 20 Mbps or above) access for all citizens by 2015. Separately, the European Commission intends to achieve universal superfast broadband coverage, with at least half of E.U. citizens having 100 Mbps download speeds, by 2020. According to a popular U.K. price comparison site, the current average U.K. broadband connection is around 8-9 Mbps.
The Ofcom study measures Internet use -- coverage, market concentration, user activities, etc. -- but not speed. It says it was unable to find enough comparable data to perform that analysis, but would like to in the future. That means it's not actually that easy to see how well the U.K. is doing to meet that 2015 target, at least in terms of raw download and upload speeds, by this study.
Perhaps surprisingly, U.K. is ranked tops in the percentage of people who have accessed the Web, as well as the percentage of people who never have.
It is also rated best for availability of standard broadband coverage, tied for first for mobile broadband access, top for people buying goods and services online -- but only third out of five for proportion of people who have used the 'Net to interact with the public sector.
[ Learn more about Brits' love of e-commerce. See U.K. Online Retailers Struggle With Product Returns. ]
While some critics have sniped that the scorecard, proposed in January 2012, has been very long in arriving, there are definite signs that Britain is more than holding its own as a digital economy. When judged by access, the U.K. digital economy can be seen as one of the most advanced in Europe.
The study says the U.K. has the same broadband adoption rate as France and Germany, at 32 connections per 100 people, a ratio higher than in other Western European nations, including Spain and Italy.
As it stood at the end of 2011, the U.K. was also third out of the five in terms of superfast broadband coverage -- ahead of Italy and France, but trailing Germany and Spain. By mid-2012, the report said, 65% of U.K. premises had access to a fixed (fiber) broadband connection.
In terms of wireless broadband, the U.K. had 64 connections per 100 people, second to Spain, which underlines the wide acceptance of smartphone- and tablet-based mobile Web access in the country.
Ofcom also said the U.K. has some of the lowest fixed and mobile broadband prices in Europe, and was ranked first in eight of the 12 categories it used to measure service affordability.
Meanwhile, it said U.K.-created services, like the BBC's iPlayer, have introduced Europeans to the idea of watching TV over the Internet, and opened the doors for new entrants into the on-demand market, including Netflix, Blinkbox, Now TV and Lovefilm Instant.
Andrew Ferguson, editor of Thinkbroadband, a broadband news and information site, said the study actually has a worrying subtext: The U.K. cannot rest on any cyber laurels, and that there is much work still to do to ensure the country can effectively compete against emerging nations.
"Just as the Internet decimated the music industry, if we do not pay attention to the many smaller emerging economies, we may find ourselves simply being seen as the birthplace of the digital economy, with other nations reaping the benefits both socially and economically," he warned.
"The U.K. has a great tradition of invention and innovation, but it needs visionaries to push the boundaries of what is possible," added Ferguson, who calls for "backup from government" to ensure investment is available to sustain digital growth.
If not, he believes, the U.K. might act as an "incubator" for others to then "benefit from what we have learned."