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Can Broadband Ever Be ‘Future-Proof?’

As businesses become more reliant on not just the internet (surely a basic necessity nowadays?) but on speedy service (24Mbps and over) that allows them to compete in any global marketplace.

Suffolk and Norfolk are, in many ways, not quite there yet.

These counties, both relatively close to London, are not the only areas suffering poor internet speeds. A letter in the Daily Telegraph recently came from somebody in another rural area who said that a company he was trying to do business with refused to believe that he had no email address because he couldn’t get an internet connection worth talking about.

Suffolk and Norfolk Fighting Back

To be fair, the County Councils in both areas are campaigning (Say Yes to Broadband) and actually setting in motion the infrastructures needed to equip residents and companies with basic tools of the digital age.

It has been announced that 50,000 homes and businesses in Lowestoft, Beccles, Hadleigh and parts of Ipswich will benefit from upgrade speeds before the end of 2012.

Within a couple of years, after the spending of millions, around 80% of properties will be satisfactorily online. Of course, by then, other areas will be so much faster they’ll be out of sight, enjoying ultra-fast speeds in excess of 80Mbps. But BT has won contracts to install Norfolk and Suffolk infrastructures, with other companies at liberty to use it to offer different services.

Even after 2015, there will be many out of reach places, homes in scattered rural locations who could pay thousands to join the 21st century with their own lines, but one could ask, why should they? There will still be too many ‘not-spots’.

It was reported in the Eastern Daily Press in September that the Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk had gone on record saying that ‘fast broadband was actually more important to Norfolk than dualling the A11’.

The same would apply to Suffolk north of Ipswich, it’s more important than dualling the A12. Digital infrastructure is at least as vital as other utilities.

Just One Example

Geoff Stevens of The Upper Room spoke for many businesses who are not in relative isolation, but in a town. He is in Oulton Broad and he told MBF Blogs: ‘I have run a small/medium sized graphic design company in south London for over 20 years and five years ago moved to Lowestoft/Oulton Broad for its idyllic lifestyle, somewhat different from that which I had become accustomed’.

Geoff said that one of the attractions was that ‘it takes quite a time to travel up the A12 and hence it is a real escape from the rat race’. He still has a studio in south London but works more and more from his north Suffolk base.

Making light of it is a way to cope over what is really a business disappointment and difficulty. ‘I knew that the journey was a long one but I didn’t realise that my car could travel faster than the files sent via the internet between my studios or from Lowestoft to my clients!

He is used to speeds of 19MB/m but here ‘I am lucky if I get more than 2’. His business viability depends on moving large files and ‘making the tea whilst the activity bar moves slowly across its window is no longer a novelty’.

The National Debate

Clearly, Geoff could use the services of MailBigFile and even try it for free. But for many people, the expectation of a fast, efficient, reliant broadband service should be a basic right, shouldn’t it? Many would say we shouldn’t have to choose between fast broadband and fast road/rail/air links, but there it is.

Britain generates more money online than any other G20 country and the internet is now a bigger part of the economy than education, healthcare or construction’, according to Juliette Garside in The Guardian (May 2012). She said that Britain’s broadband is actually ‘heading for the slow lane’.

She said our average download speed is 16th in Europe, with other European competitors and Asia ‘leaving us for dust’. She felt our problem was that we are laying fibre optic to street cabinets and then relying on copper into homes and offices. This is a poor compromise, a long way short of what others can achieve.

Russia has 12 million homes with fibre to the doorstep, France 6 million and the UK just 400,000. Australia will have 93% fibre to homes by 2018. She said that ministers rank broadband along with roads, rail and energy in the top of the priority tables. However, broadband is set to get a fraction of the investment that is coming.

Critics say that government targets for broadband are ’fulfilling the demands of the past’ when what is needed tomorrow is infinite bandwidth. Others argue that the £17bn committed to the London-Birmingham high speed rail connection would ‘future=proof’ the fibre network.

Any other ideas?

Also check out:

The Guardian, Juliette Garside, 7 May 2012

Auctioning Off the Spectrum: Cash Bonanza for Government Coffers, 29 August 2012

Unblocking the Superhighway, Our Economic Artery, 1 August 2012

Image: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier