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Unclogging the Arteries of the Superhighway

Nobody seriously any longer would question that broadband has become an essential way of life. Britain is not rushing ahead with a total commitment, partly because of the huge, eye-watering cost. What we have instead is a slow, steady, rather plodding approach to gradually expanding the net.

The current government target is for 90% of premises to receive broadband download speeds of a minimum 24mbps by December 2015. Compare that with the drive in Australia, where a $42 billion project for a comprehensive nationwide high-speed broadband network.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has said that every 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration delivers a 1.3% one off growth in the national economy. They may have to trim the budget on this project by as much as 105, but the fact that they are doing it is what should inspire other nations.

International Dimensions

Simon Sharwood, reporting on The Register (June 2012) said that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has urged western economies to accelerate out of ‘current fiscal fug’ by investing in ‘a jolting dose of fast broadband.’

The ITU wrote to G20 leaders supporting broadband infrastructure development, applications and services to benefit societies around the world. They argued that new wires alone will not be useful when what’s needed is ‘advanced online services, locally relevant content and services, and support for media and information literacy development to address inequity and deliver broadband inclusion for all.’

They argued that if broadband roll-out is to contribute to development, human activity must transform information into knowledge. They had four pillars buttressing their argument: freedom of expression; quality education for all; universal access to information and knowledge; and respect for cultural and linguistic diversity.

The ITU concluded with four targets it wants the wealthiest nations to adopt:

Target 1: Making broadband policy universal. By 2015, all countries should have a national broadband plan or strategy or include broadband in their Universal Access / Service Definitions.

Target 2: Making broadband affordable. By 2015, entry-level broadband services should be made affordable in developing countries through adequate regulation and market forces (amounting to less than 5% of average monthly income).

Target 3: Connecting homes to broadband. By 2015, 40% of households in developing countries should have Internet access.

Target 4: Getting people online. By 2015, Internet user penetration should reach 60% worldwide, 50% in developing countries and 15% in LDCs.

Economic Arguments

With the internet running most of life from examinations for teenagers to monitoring the elderly in their homes to enabling young entrepreneurs to set up new and innovative businesses, it is no longer a desirable asset. The internet delivered as fast and reliably as possible is an economic necessity.

BT Infinity recently produced a survey suggesting that a quarter of web users were what they called ‘Home Hubs’. These are not pleasure seekers, online for watching television or playing games and gambling, big as those industries are. They are working, banking, shopping and oiling the wheels of capitalism from their homes and on the move.

The superhighway has become the roadway to society and life as we know it. The danger is that it is already becoming clogged in places. It’s like a motorway stretch that is a bottle necked, jammed with traffic. Spend enough to broaden it and the problem goes away?

Well, in theory, yes. In practise, new demands on the highway will just go on growing exponentially. But we have to get on and decide how much of our taxpayers’ money we want to spend on improving what we have in order to safeguard the digital future.

Thinking Global, Acting Local

Major conurbations are usually well served. The further one is from the exchange with traditional broadband copper wires, the more the signal degrades. Fibre links solve that one, but every link into the system has to be cost-effective, and in sparsely populated rural areas they rarely are.

A new scheme from Norfolk is just showing how it could be done in rural blackspots across the land. Wireless internet provider WISP is a programme is planting transmitters and receivers on the Norfolk’s church towers that cover the county.

Thinkingwisp in an ISP provided by a partnership of Norfolk-based organisations which have come together to provide Norfolk with fast, reliable broadband. They are marketing the service in a relatively small area at present, but have ambitious plans.

Encrypted internet connection from Norwich is sent wirelessly to Norwich Cathedral to receivers high in the mediaeval tower, from where signals are retransmitted to nearby churches, from where in turn it is transmitted to houses and businesses, providing up to 8mbps. As the scheme expands, repeater units can reach more churches over an ever greater area.

WISP website explains that the system requires line of sight between transmitters and the relative flatness of the county encourages that. Eventually, tall buildings will not be required, repeater units covering small distances will be passed around obstructions to reach lower buildings, cars and boats so web access is constant.

There are implications there for mobile phone systems too, but it is only time before all these things are effectively one and the same. Wireless signals to and from your devices, you and whoever you want.

Not Without Controversy

When the idea of using churches was first out forward in 2011 for beaming high-speed signals, there was opposition from those concerned about health and safety of people living nearby. ElectroSensitivity UK (ESUK), a national health charity, argued that potential health risks to those who suffer from electro-sensitivity, had not been evaluated.

In the end, the experts from the Health Protection Agency and others concluded that there was no ‘scientific’ evidence. It may be that like harm from phone masts and land-based wind turbines, there will be harm to only some people and over time. The majority will be enjoying faster broadband, maybe.


The Register, Simon Sharwood, ITU to G20 leaders, June 2012


Eastern Daily Press, Chris Hill, No scientific evidence to stop church wi-fi scheme, 27 September 2011

Image: NASA