If you live in Sheffield you probably can't read this

Fibre optic cables. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Sheffield sucks: let's not beat around the bush here. I mean, yeah, okay, the steel was good while it lasted, but we all know that's over. There are two significant movies substantially set in Sheffield. One's about naked miners, the other sees it destroyed by nuclear fire. That says something, doesn't it? The place is a dump.

Okay, I don't actually think that (to my shame, I've never been there). But I feel on relatively safe ground being mean about the (no doubt glorious) Yorkshire city because this is an online publication. And something about Sheffield that genuinely does suck is its internet access.

There are a number of different ways of measuring how good a city's broadband connection is. You can look at the average speed of the connection between your computer and the local exchange:

Or you look at the percentage receiving less than a certain speed:

Then again, you might want to look at the percentage of those who have access to superfast broadband, which connects using fibre optic cables rather than phone lines, and consequently allows things like video streaming:

Whichever way you look at it, though, certain trends become clear. When it comes to the internet, some cities (Belfast, Bristol, Nottingham) are much more connected than others (Glasgow, Sheffield).

Over the last month two different organisations have highlighted the economic implications of this gulf. The City Growth Commission's “Connected Cities” report mostly attracted headlines for its ambitious transport plans, but it also described “broadband variability" as a concern that needed addressing.  Meanwhile, “The Fourth Utility”, a report published by the Federation of Small Businesses, found that 14 per cent of businesses described crappy broadband to be "their main barrier to growth". (Amazingly, 45,000 businesses still rely on dial-up.)

It's worth remembering that these figures are averages. The main determinant of broadband speeds is the quality of “last mile” infrastructure – that is, the links between users and the local telephone exchange. That means there are almost certainly wider disparities within cities than there are between them. Not everyone in Bristol is cheerfully bingeing on Orange is the New Black on Netflix; not everyone in Sheffield is watching websites load a pixel at a time.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking: why are some places so much better connected than others?

As it turns out, it’s not so much one problem as three.

1) The investment incentives are all wrong.

It's easy to persuade companies to invest in links between cities: these are in great demand, so those investments will be profitable. But the bottleneck is in the last mile – the twigs of the network, rather than its trunk. This requires a lot of different cables, each connecting to a relatively small pool of users. Investing in those just isn’t that profitable: if you're an ISP, why would you bother?

Normally the reason why you'd bother is "because if you don't, your competitors will". The only problem is...

2) The market is deeply uncompetitive

In 2007, just five companies held 82 per cent of the broadband market. Five years later, just four of them held 87 per cent. Competition is weak, and it's getting weaker.

That means there's very little incentive to invest. Don’t like the service you’re getting? Tough. Where else you gonna go?

Oh, and...

3) European law isn't helping

The government is allowed to invest in digital infrastructure if it can demonstrate that no private company is going to do so – but EU rules on state aid prevent it from building public infrastructure to compete if private investment is already there. And, in the case of the broadband market, the service providers are investing – just, not very fast.

This is not a theoretical problem. In 2011, the British government launched its "Superconnected Cities" policy, a £150m scheme championed by chancellor George Osborne, which was meant to create superfast broadband in 22 different British cities. BT and Virgin Media promptly got the ‘ump and lodged legal objections, alleging that this amounted to anti-competitive behaviour.

They won. With just a hint of smugness, a Virgin spokesperson told Tech Week Europe:

“Where companies are already investing in world class connections, government has recognised public money should not be used to build more networks.”

So, the government abandoned its plans to invest in infrastructure, and is now instead distributing the money as vouchers with which small companies can buy better internet connections. Which most of them can’t, because Virgin, BT et al haven’t got round to building them yet.

It'd be oversimplifying things to say there was any direct correlation between broadband speeds and economic growth: London remains an economic giant despite being in the middle of the pack. It's worth noting, too, that there are areas that used to dream of having Sheffield's broadband speeds. Here are its figures compared to those you can get in the UK's biggest blackspot, the Isles of Scilly:

But what is clear is that there's a growing consensus that

a) future economic growth will require investment in superfast broadband in all parts of Britain's cities, not just those where it's immediately profitable; and

b) the current crop of internet service providers is taking its sweet time about obliging.

In one of its less-noticed recommendations, the City Growth Commission called on the government to commission a major review to work out how to change all this. Your move, minister.


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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