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Travelling the broadband highway

The role for broadband communications in beating congestion

If every person in the country cut their car journeys by 10%, it would save 14.5 billion miles per year. That is equivalent to 3 years growth in car traffic.  And it's not that hard to do, according to a report from BT Broadband - the role for communications in beating congestion.

That new ways of working and shopping can in principle reduce travel is not new.  Where this report adds value to understanding of the issues is in marshalling up-to-date transport data, broken down on a regional basis, to show the effects of congestion and transport growth, and how broadband can improve the uptake of online activities.

Enthusiasm for new ways of remote working in the past has been tempered by frustration at slow speed and unreliability of connections.  As we move into a broadband age, with ADSL becoming available over 99% of the country by the end of 2005 and greater wireless bandwidth coming on stream, working from home and other remote locations is becoming a more natural way of doing things.

Conferencing and e-shopping benefits

Some of the newer research relating to video and audio conferencing cited in the report is instructive.

An independent survey of the use of conferencing at BT (where it is used very extensively) found that:

  • 26% of respondents stated that their last call had saved at least 100
  • mileage savings were 91-100 miles for car users and 94 miles for rail users
  • 46% of those trips would have been at peak hours
  • around a third of the replaced trips would have been in London
  • each conference call is saving a minimum of 22.05kg of CO2 and all calls together are saving at least 20,060 kg of CO2.

Data on home shopping, a phenomenon still in its infancy, is also enlightening. At the moment home shopping accounts for 4-8% of UK retail sales, and is forecast to double by 2010.

A survey by NOP found that 78% of respondents had saved at least one journey through the use of online shopping, with an average net reduction of 7.1 miles per person. Not massive, but not bad given the state of the art so far.

Where the report is on weaker ground is in giving high prominence to older speculative research from the RAC Foundation.  Their Motors and Modems (published in 2000) said that by 2005 teleworking and technology would have reduced commuter traffic by 10%, shopping trips by 5% and lorry traffic by 16%, rising even further by 2010 and shaving 1.9 billion from congestion costs. These figures are not widely accepted by researchers.

Telework does cut commuter and business travel, but it has to be set against continued transport growth in a growing and more prosperous population.  Emerging reductions in shopping travel brought about through e-commerce has to be set against an expected increase in truck and light goods vehicle movements.

Simple messages and credibility

In the end, the BT report advocates a simple approach. Use of broadband telecommunications for work and shopping won't solve the problems of congestion, but can make a substantial contribution:

"Reducing it to the simplest level, to cut congestion all we need to do is reorganise how we do things a little. And what better way of starting than taking one in ten of our journeys and making it down the digital superhighway?"

In many ways the report is an update of Telecommuting 2000 for the broadband age. It has a similar methodology in working from studies of telework and national transport data to reach its conclusions, and highlighting the business, personal and environmental incentives to replace travel with online activity.

Because of BT's business interest in promoting telecommunications, some may be inclined to be sceptical about the results. But the findings are well researched, and though BT broadband is promoted as a solution, the potential savings are not overstated except in some of the RAC Foundation figures that are quoted.

The report is given added weight by contributions from the CBI and respected researchers from Bradford University. It should also be noted that BT does have credibility in this area, as it practices what it preaches employing over 9,000 regular teleworkers.

Broadband and broadband

It's worth noting in passing the devaluation of the word "broadband" over the past decade.  It used to mean bandwidths over 2 megabits per second - that gives seriously fast connection speeds and the ability to stream video effectively.  Now in government an BT-speak it means anything beyond simple ISDN.

ADSL is much highlighted, but the uplink is not at all "broad". This asymmetric service is narrow one way, broader the other and this acts as a brake on effective videoconferencing. It's fine for surfing the Internet, but for sending large items of information it's very limited. The UK's standard 512 or 750 kilobit service is a long way behind the 8 or 10 megabit services being rolled out in the Far East.

This doesn't negate BT's message in the report. In a way it reinforces it. UK "broadband" is starting to make a difference.  The next generation, which may take us towards Singaporean or Korean standards, can make even more of a difference.



Further Information

The report Broadband - the role for communications in beating congestion from BT is available for download at




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