The British government must urgently invest in broadband internet infrastructure
It is essential that the UK's internet infrastructure is improved and expanded, within and beyond urban areas, and a nation-wide project must commence without further delay.
This is now a race against time. With renewed urgency, serious action is again being called for. It will require significant investment by the government, but could be funded several times over simply by dropping just one of the most obvious unnecessary projects, e.g. the HS2 rail project, the Trident nuclear weapons programme, overseas aid to super-rich countries, etc.
Keeping-up in the tech economy is literally essential for Britain's future prosperity. [By the way, let's stop referring to it as the "new" tech economy now, because it's been well-established for several years, and calling it "new" sounds too much like a convenient excuse for inexcusable delays in properly embracing it.] Fast, reliable internet is a mandatory prerequisite for a prosperous economy, for industries and jobs that are sustainable, flexible and green, and for many other desirable outcomes and key local and national policies. (The UK is no longer a major manufacturing economy, and many of our formerly mighty industries have been driven to extinction by foreign competition, and the same thing could happen to our tech sector too if we continue falling behind.) We therefore need to focus on the future and what we can do to be competitive in the global economy.
Don't let the politicians tell you we can't afford it, when it could be achieved for a fraction of the cost of building the HS2 rail link or upgrading the Trident nuclear weapons system. The HS2 rail project will cost at least £33 BILLION just to build a single railway line. It's madness to waste so much public cash on 19th Century infrastructure when the world has changed -- technology negates the need to physically travel for work, and remote working will become the norm. The project is so luny, in fact, that it now looks likely to collapse due to bad management -- so let's take the available HS2 budget and re-allocate it to broadband to keep Britain afloat in the new economy. Similarly, we're paying millions of pounds in overseas aid at a time when Britain needs investment, for example in a three-year period the government is sending £825-million in "aid" to India, our hard-earned cash collected through taxation, while India is our commercial rival in the global marketplace, and people in India are taking thousands of jobs away from people in Britain! (Overseas aid is good, and it can yield advantages for the donor, but the aid will stop anyway when Britain is bankrupt!) For goodness sake, India is one of the world's largest and fastest-growing economies -- they can even afford their own space programme, while here in the UK we cannot, so they clearly do not require extra cash from British tax-payers. The national broadband upgrade could also be subsidised at least in part through the archaic "TV Licence" tax or by the BBC (who have been wasting huge sums of public money on failed and bloated projects, especially in web-related departments). We started asking for this to be addressed years ago, but the government of the day has consistently failed to take adequate action. I also want BT to start sharing their infrastructure with rivals, for instance allowing VM to use existing poles, and we need the government to act on this.The Conservative party now in government has promised to take action on broadband, though as usual we are still waiting.
The majority of areas in the UK still have no access to current-generation broadband internet! Half the population instead has to cope with either no internet access at all, or at best a poor service via old copper wire infrastructure designed for making telephone calls. This is unacceptable. The internet is now an essential service, like telephone, gas, electricity and water. Yet vast areas of the UK have been left far behind, and Britain is starting to look like a third-world nation.
Voters and tax-payers depend on the government to protect them against monopolies, through regulation, but the government is failing us. The two main companies involved with providing broadband infrastructure at present -- Virgin Media (formerly NTL) and BT -- have been allowed to make huge profits by serving only the most densely-populated areas while pleading poverty when it comes to the rest of the country. The problem is, it's a monopoly. People outside towns and cities are being told it's "too expensive". BT recently ran their "Race to Infinity" campaign, generating a great deal of positive publicity with impressive TV ads -- all for a token roll-out of fibre-optic cable services to a very small selection of consumers in areas where demand was found to be highest. Virgin don't even try to pretend they're serious about expanding cable services. Virgin haven't even bothered setting-up a website, but they did set-up a "Cable My Street" email address, which potential customers are trying to use, but sadly emails sent to Virgin's CableMyStreet address often just bounce back with an error, and if you are lucky enough do get a reply it's always the same: "too expensive". The "sorry, too expensive" excuse is a fallacy. In many cases it's an investment with returns that would would cover costs with a reasonable profit. What they really mean is "sorry, we want a quick easy profit".
Last week the government sent a letter to all MPs, dated 2 Feb, about the Government's National Broadband Strategy. "Britain's Superfast Broadband Future". This official document promises a high-speed broadband hub in every community by 2015. That sounds ambitious, and it absolutely needs to be, because it is so long overdue. And this time we need more than words, we need real action. We need to see a timeline for connecting each individual community, not just empty promises. And it's actually not faster broadband we need, but simply the geographic expansion of basic fibre-optic broadband services! In fact basic reliable 10 MB broadband will be enough for most people! But most people living or working a couple of miles outside the nearest major town or city in Britain can't even get a consistent 5 MB connection! Virgin Media is investing in providing 100 MB broadband to make even more money from a minute fraction of customers, while the majority of the population is still waiting to be connected. It's a national disgrace.
Politicians, scientists, environmental campaigners, and others, ask and fully expect us all to use our cars less. We are severely and ever increasingly penalised for using motor vehicles. Public transport is increasingly over-crowded and expensive and not without environmental impact (though like electric cars, electric trains can move the problems to centralised energy facilities). Working from home solves some of the key problems. And yet, it is obvious that people cannot work from home with slow and unreliable internet services. Huge numbers of people commute on a daily basis, driving cars, cramming onto trains and buses, etc -- with the transport infrastructure subsidised by public funds. We don't do it for fun. Meanwhile, the preferred alternatives (especially working from home) receive no such subsidees! It is ridiculous, and it is unsustainable. A cultural change is desperately needed, but to achieve it will require a new infrastructure, along with a new mindset for smart 21st-century living. We cannot expect British companies to lead the way in embracing the net and cable services, when half of their customers can't even get a good internet connection or receive other cable services like TV. The government supposedly believes in "localism" now, but it's impossible to achieve without widespread cable services to facilitate crucial aspects of it like local TV (in addition to local radio). These are only the most obvious issues -- there are many other compelling reasons why widespread access to cable services, particularly broadband, is essential and desirable. So why isn't it happening?
Permit me to speak for my own community, for a moment, as a useful example. We need fibre-optic broadband and cable TV services here in Braughing in Hertfordshire, right now, please! For goodness sake, this is an affluent area in the South East of England, within London's commuter-belt! We're a couple of miles from the nearest town where they have fibre-optic cable infrastructure -- monopolised by Virgin who refuse to service anything but the most profitable and densely populated areas. Imagine where we'd be if Britain had adopted this attitude toward electricity! That's where we'll be if we continue on our present course. Of course, it's wanted and needed equally in countless other areas throughout the UK.
The tech revolution is much bigger than the industrial revolution, and it's faster -- and it's happening right now even as you read these words. The world is changing forever, and we're all part of it. We'll all go down in history. This is the beginning. But by the end, there will be winners, and losers. Future generations will look back on this pivotal moment in history and know this was the juncture at which we either missed or seized the greatest opportunity for of the age. Britain probably won't have an opportunity like this for millennia, if another opportunity like it ever comes again.
A defining legacy of today's coalition government, and of the whole parliament and our elected representatives, will be the success or failure of Britain in the rising digital economy.
10 February 2011