THE LORDS’ BROADBAND PRAYER

The old duffers, better known as the House of Lords, are choking on their claret and cucumber sandwiches, but it’s difficult to win an argument when you conceded the debate 28 years earlier.

Its Select Committee on Communications has had a look and doesn’t like the Government’s broadband strategy.  They think its too focused on delivering higher broadband speeds to metrosexuals at the cost of those who choose to live in the shires.  They’ve published an alternative vision and hope that the Lords’ Broadband Prayer will be answered.

Can someone get on with reform of the House of Lords please?

At the heart of their concern is a worry about a digital divide between the country and the city, creating a two tier society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.  The quarrel with any national infrastructure that needs to reach every home and business in the land, of course, is cost.  The Lords’ prayer is a tad silent on what it’s vision might cost or where the funding might come from.

The fundamental issue with rural broadband is techno-economics.  Not all telephone exchanges are created equal. In the cities, there might be as many as 100,000 homes connected to a telephone exchange.  The provider can therefore take a risk with how many of those homes will pay for the service, making the capital investment a relatively comfortable decision.

But in the countryside, where many of the Lords seem to reside and where as few as 100 homes are connected to an exchange, the economics are less comfortable.  In other words, if you look out your kitchen window and can see more cattle than potential broadband subscribers, I’d temper your expectations about getting an ultrafast broadband service anytime soon.

Another irk is that BT, the only company in the country investing appreciative levels of capital to improve fixed line broadband services, could become a monopoly again.  BT is investing heavily to bring fibre-based broadband to two thirds of the country.  The final third, which means the most remote areas, are simply not economic. As a public company, BT can’t be expected to play fast and loose with its shareholders cash.  BT also allows any alternative provider to resell its broadband service, creating that competition keeps prices low and service high and avoids the wasted investment of duplicated infrastructure.

The Lords want the government to invest in building an alternative infrastructure that would be open to all providers to offer services.  That would simply jeopardise the returns that businesses like BT and Virgin Media could expect and likely diminish their enthusiasm for future investment.

The Government has committed £530 million to subsidise higher speed broadband for rural areas. That should deliver reasonable service to around 90 percent of premises, but still leaves a gap.

Another source of incremental funding could be the price that you and I pay for our broadband service.  Competition in the broadband market in the UK has allowed us to enjoy among the lowest prices for broadband in Europe.  Of course BT and other providers could simply charge end users in rural areas significantly more for their broadband connections than their city-dwelling cousins do.  I’m prepared to wager that neither approach would meet universal approval.

The Lords rightly say that broadband infrastructure is central to the country’s social and economic wellbeing.  In 1984, the Government sold British Telecommunications to private shareholders, the first of the then Government’s foray into privatisation.  That act diminishes the Lords’ right to make demands on BT and the rest of the industry now and begs the question why, if it’s so important, was it privatised in the first place.

I have more faith in the integrity of research that BT’s highly skilled engineering teams have done on rural broadband.  While careers in broadcasting are well represented among the Select Committee’s membership, only one, Lord St John of Bletso, has any direct experience of the telecommunications industry, having served as sales and marketing director for Globix in the late 1990s.

The answer to the Lords’ prayer is straightforward if not simple.  It needs investment.  If the Committee truly believe that it’s an investment worth making, they should be looking at other Government investments and suggest a re-prioritisation as they’re doing in Australia and New Zealand.

An alternative would be to put pressure on the regulator to get on with the already delayed auction of spectrum that would enable higher speed, next generation mobile broadband across the country.  The techno economics in rural areas would be less gruelling.  It might even suit rural lifestyles better.

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HE WHO SHARES, WINS

I was seduced by a lady in the bar of a luxury London hotel this week, but this is not that kind of blog and she wasn’t that kind of lady. Benita Matofska wants to help us change the way we live by enabling us to “have the life we want at a price we can afford.” That’s a concept I find very seductive.

Both a borrower and a lender be.

Benita’s business card says she’s the chief sharer at The People Who Share, a start up business that’s deploying the power of the Internet to connect people so we can share the things we’re not using or under-utilising.  An active ‘sharing economy’ clearly promises environmental benefits.  If there was ever a time to introduce such an initiative, that time is surely today’s climate of austerity.

The practicality makes sense.  Last week, I had to move two tons of stones from the front of my property to the back.  Had I not known that the bloke next door had an unemployed wheelbarrow sitting in his garage, I would have had to pay a visit to the local builders yard.  That would have left my bank account £50 lighter and both of us with unemployed wheelbarrows in our garages.

Car sharing or holiday house swaps are obvious examples but when you get to think about it, there are lot of opportunities.  Most families on your street have a lawn mover that gets used a few times every year – why?  I also predict a brisk trade in golf clubs, musical instruments and exercise equipment that had more enthusiasm shown them on the day of purchase than at any time afterwards.

One of my favourite ideas from Benita is ‘shwopping’, an idea I believe will appeal more to ladies than to men. Rather than buy a new outfit for a special occasion that will then take up space at the back of your wardrobe, simply borrow something from the back of someone else’s wardrobe who’s the same size as you.

We’ve become much more comfortable with the concept of ‘sharing’ since signing up for Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Today, people happy and regularly share photos, ideas and all kinds of updates.  Some even share details of what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Business like BT, though its FON initiative, enable people to share their broadband connections when they are otherwise idle with others who sign up to do the same thing.

Benita’s plan is to help you to find people that have what you need going spare using Internet search technology.  She believes it could become a global business, but I see it as a more hyperlocal initiative.  Maybe there’s a way we could both be right.  eBay is certainly a model worth looking at.

In any event, the sharing economy clearly requires rules to be established and applied.  It can’t be asymmetrical (both a borrower and a lender be!) and someone would need to do a credit and character check before you’d be prepared to hand over the keys to your holiday cottage to someone who asks you to believe he’s Honest Bill from Herne Bay.  I suspect you’d also like to know that Kimberly from Chatham is on familiar terms with a good dry cleaner before lending her your latest Stella McCartney for the evening.

At the risk of sounding like a card carrying Greenpeacer (I’m not), I do think we’ve completely lost the plot on consumption. The world can’t sustain it and rampant consumerism is making us increasingly boring dinner guests.

But the biggest benefit is that a sharing economy might just get people speaking to people they don’t know again, like we did in ye olde days. Imagine – social technology platforms helping to make people sociable again.  Seductive.  Very seductive.

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DIGITAL WARS

Some of us are old enough to remember when public telephone boxes served as more than rainstorm shelters and public convenience after the pubs closed; train journeys were a more peaceful experience and the work day started when we reached our in-tray in the office, rather than the inbox on our various devices.

Today, we live among a new generation for whom the Internet, mobile telephony, social media and white headphones come fitted as standard.  This digital generation might be surprised to learn that, like the Beatles, it took a number of years of playing to small audiences before the holy trinity of Apple, Microsoft and Google became overnight sensations.

Charles Arthur has been a technology and science journalist for the last 25 years.  During that time, he has been a professional witness at the birth, the awkward adolescent years and the eventual graduation of the digital world.  Last night, I went to hear Charles speak about Digital Wars and the battle for the Internet, his book that chronicles how three of Silicon Valley’s behemoths changed the way we work, communicate, interact and are entertained.

Over the years, Charles has worked hard to earn and maintain a reputation as someone that public relations people need to tread very carefully with, so it was interesting that the event was held at the offices of Fishburn Hedges, a (pretty good and very hospitable) PR consultancy.  The audience was made up largely of PR and marketing types.  When armed with copies of a book to sell, even Charles Arthur is capable of being charming to a group of PRs.  On last night’s performance, maybe he should be considering the safe return to the organisers of the Crapps Awards which he won in 2010 and retained in 2011.  But I digress.

The book begins in 1998, a pivotal point in digital history. Google had just been incorporated and had signed a lease on it’s first garage; Apple was limbering up for an iRenaissance with the prodigal Steve Jobs reinstalled as CEO; and Microsoft’s legal team was busy reading up on anti-trust legislation.  It ends with the untimely death of Steve Jobs in late 2011.

Digital Wars is a genuinely fascinating book.  For those of us who, like Charles, grew up as active participants and observers of the revolution, it’s a timely walk down memory lane.  For the digital generation, it’s a fastidiously-researched, well-written and interesting history lesson in how the world was changed with vision, determination, brains, microchips and computer code.

I would challenge the fact that the book gives scant acknowledgement to the crucial role the telecoms industry played as a revolutionary usher of the digital revolution. Were it not for the innovation and investment telecoms made in high speed broadband switching, routing, fibre optics and wireless signalling over both fixed and mobile networks, the growth of the Internet and digital music downloading – arguably Apple’s saviour – might have been less interesting.  If you’re a member of the digital generation, you might have to ask your dad what it was like to download a single song from Napster over a standard telephone connection. Alternatively, spend a few days in deepest, darkest Devon.

But perhaps I’m being a tad picky.  Digital Wars is a business-technology-history book, and a good business-technology-history book.  Once read, it will sit comfortably in the reference section.  Thankfully, it doesn’t try to paint too many predictions for the future.  If anyone really knew what the next decade of technical innovation would lead us to, it wouldn’t be necessary for them to work too hard to make a living.

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