Thursday, 17 November 2011

Connect the dots

So Bristol? Next Gen? What was all that about then?

As I blogged yesterday, I spent the last couple of days down in Bristol attending the Next Gen 11 conference - a gathering dedicated to bringing about faster deployment of Next Generation or Superfast broadband across the UK, and particularly in remote and rural communities that risk being left behind by the commercial market.

On the whole it was attended by techno-types and their supply chain. Much of the time it was a complete alphabet soup of three letter acronyms, purposely designed by the high priesthood of technology to bamboozle and baffle the uninitiated. I struggled at times to understand what was being discussed, and had to work hard to keep my brain up with the topics. But it was worth it. I did learn a huge amount, if only that many people, even those who appear to understand it, are as confused as me on some of the issues.

I had been asked to participate in a Panel debate on the leadership challenges of deploying Superfast. The obvious one is how much it will cost, with figures into the multi-millions often quoted. But then when you compare that with the hundreds of millions we are happy to spend on roads and other dubious transport projects, it's not really that much after all.

Much of the cost comes from digging the holes to lay the fibre, rather than the fibre or other network infrastructure itself. If we could find a way of doing that more cheaply - using existing ducts perhaps, or finding less costly ways to dig holes - then that would help with the commercial equations.

Part of the challenge too is in understanding what it is, why it's needed and what benefits it will bring. At the moment, on the whole, we benefit from fairly good internet connections. Often times not as fast as we would like, but certainly nowhere near as absent as many parts of the globe. But the trouble is that our lifestyles and our business developments are requiring ever faster speeds, and more and more of us are wanting to use the networks, and these combine to collapse the system. Contention rates on the existing copper network mean that advertised download speeds are rarely achievable, even in our major cities. Increasingly, fibre optic networks will be required to deliver the superfast speeds that tomorrow's internet will require.

Heck, it's not even tomorrow's internet, to get the most out of it, fibre is needed today. For businesses, it can be the difference between getting to customers or not. For public services, it can be the difference between providing expertise to remote and rural areas or not. For workers, it can be what allows home, remote or flexible working. For families, it can be what adds value to their entertainment.

While the last point may seem glib, in our increasingly globalised and technology dependent world, some families may well start making decisions about where to live based on what internet services, and therefore what lifestyle services, they can access. And those areas without good connections risk being left behind. The painful truth of that is that it will probably be the very same communities that are socially excluded now that will be digitally excluded in the future.

So, what can be done? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. What I'll be doing is a heck of a lot more research. I'll also be talking about it a lot with the decision makers that I work with, telling the story and describing the need and the benefits. I'll be encouraging peope to think about different funding models, and pushing for innovation about building the networks. I'll also be getting people to look at the community led projects that are out there - in Cumbria, in Argyll, in East Lothian and in Sweden - for examples of different ways of doing it. I'll be hoping that people see this as a societal investment and not merely a retail proposition - a way of ensuring our continued economic success, of delivering high quality public services to remote and rural services, of driving technological efficiency, of sustaining rural communities and of addressing our carbon footprints.

if we really are to connect the dots across all of society, and not just those that are lucky enough to already live in areas seen as commercially lucrative for the market to want, this is an issue that requires leadership at all levels, not just by those we assume are normally 'in charge'.

So what about you - what will you be doing?

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