Barely broadband

Hong Kong’s digital divide is so wide that the outlying islands internet service barely qualifies as broadband.

A survey by the Islands Broadband Concern Group survey has found that the average broadband downlink on the islands is just 4.59 Mbps – less than one-twentieth of the SAR average of 92.6 Mbps (NB: I set up the ISCG and conducted the survey).  Akamai, the company behind the State of the Internet reports that list broadband speeds around the world, has declared broadband to be 4 Mbps and above, with high-speed broadband starting at 10 Mbps.

The online survey also confirmed widespread unhappiness over the residential broadband service: 82% of respondents were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied; just 8% were satisfied.

Now this isn’t a scientific survey, but it does bring some credible figures that will be difficult for the operator and the government to shrug off. 

Back in May, IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok asked in LegCo why Hong Kong did not have a minimum broadband speed. Commerce Secretary Greg So replied that it would be “inappropriate.” He followed the Ofca script extolling its “pro-market” policy:

With the full liberalisation of the telecommunications market in Hong Kong, the provision of Internet access service, the network coverage and the adoption of access technologies and speed are primarily based on the commercial considerations of operators. The Communications Authority considers it inappropriate to set a standard for Internet connection speed.

Yet while claiming that the network rollouts have nothing to do with him he goes on to take credit for Hong Kong having the world’s fastest peak speed and second fastest average connection speed – a case of having his dim sum and eating it.

The dismal islands broadband performance is a failure of the “pro-market” policy. It may have worked extremely well in the rest of Hong Kong but it has been grossly inadequate in the harder-to-connect parts of the city. The complexities of broadband are a reality that the rest of the world permanently confronts. In Hong Kong they are ignored.

We should not confuse “pro-market” with “hands off.” Ofca’s direction of the market gets down to quite granular levels. It licenses telecom operators, sells them spectrum, fines them if their network breaks down and also collects fees for universal service. Here it’s giving approval for SmarTone to install equipment in Tai Lam tunnel.

High-speed broadband is such an important part of modern infrastructure that most countries, including China, have adopted some kind of NBN plan. Connectivity is too important to leave to the market alone.

Mr So and Ofca are in denial about this. They may think it “inappropriate” to set a broadband minimum to ensure high-speed broadband reaches the final 1% of households, but others clearly don’t – most obviously the US. While its average broadband speed of 49 Mbps is barely half that of Hong Kong’s, it has set a minimum of 25 Mbps – a signal that it thinks such a target is both desirable and doable. Hong Kong officials are unable to form an opinion.

A dozen years ago the International Telecom Union declared broadband to be 1.5 Mbps or above. Until 2012 Akamai determined broadband to be 2-5 Mbps and high-speed broadband was 5 Mbps or above. Under its current definition the outlying islands only just scrape in.  The definition of broadband is constantly shifting. The same cannot be said for our telecom regulators.

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