Rebooting Rural

To those who understand, who get IT, who have vision and imagination that goes beyond a responsibility to shareholders there is no issue in understanding the potential for unlimited bandwidth in rural areas. For everybody else it is sometimes difficult to describe the one big idea that would make it a worthwhile investment.  In a change from my usual blog posting format I acknowledge a fictional piece by Zach Exley in “Rebooting America” called “To: Micah L. Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum 2008”, in which I write to you from a point not too far in the future. As always it is there for people to read, comment and appropriate as they see fit.

2017, today I retire, finally. Taking the ZEV from the community pool would, normally, have bothered me. It was only a 45 minute walk to Higher Heath via the back roads but this morning I wanted to be there and back as quickly as possible. Besides, it was only 5:30 and the ZEV would be returned and charging in its bay before the morning commute at 8:30. I’d even booked the session with the village co-ordinator, so my conscience was clear.

Not that many people commute these days, there’s no need. The national fibre network has made the daily commute to the office and the factory a rare occurrence. You work from where you are; finally people have recognised that value is added, by the person not the person in attendance. Even CNC machine programming can be completed at home and then the operation monitored remotely. Loading, unloading and problem solving can be done by skilled individuals more locally placed.

The breakthrough had come with the Great Green Retrofit of 2012 – 2015 and the realisation that to reap the full benefits of the Smart Grid you needed infrastructure. While you’re in the community lay the fibre, while you’re in the house connect to the network – the rest, as they say, is history; a two year history of unprecedented economic growth and social change.

In 2010 we were told that rural areas might get a form of fibre network, possibly to the pavement by 2017 – now I’m on my way to the parish cloudlet for one final look before I hand in my identity tag. Truth is I don’t need to go there. I’ve been managing the cloudlet for the last two years and I’ve only been there maybe a dozen times even though it’s just a 45 minute walk away. A direct fibre connection allows me to monitor, change, and manage even watch without ever having to leave home. I can hold meetings with the other operators using virtual presence. Today, however, I wanted to visit, one last time.

The cloudlet network was a by product of the infrastructure investment. Back in 2010 the assumption had been that The Cloud would be the way forward. Factory sized server farms with obscene bandwidth hosting applications, storing data, personal information and entertainment; anything and everything for everybody. The problems with the cloud idea were numerous, they were wasteful, huge energy requirements, low carbon efficiency and they were vulnerable; despite redundant systems they were a single point of failure. Worst of all, people didn’t trust them, they weren’t fully understood and they were too remote. The idea that your “stuff” was in a repository somewhere across the Atlantic didn’t have the right feel for many people. The owners of the cloud did little to help themselves. Each of the big corporations wanted the whole cloud to themselves; they were proprietary in a world where people wanted choice and the freedom to change if they weren’t happy just as they did with any service that they paid for.

So the idea of the cloudlets was borne. Any community could have its own small cloud that served the needs of its community. The cloudlets supported each other and provided resilience. The large, corporate clouds became service providers for large corporate customers and the repositories for commercial content; there never was money to be made from the large amount of personal content, it took up lots of space and it never really paid for itself.

The cloudlets charged local people for their local services such as data storage and access to the wider network. They also charge content providers to be the gateway to the local network. What’s more they charged just enough so that it wasn’t prohibitive; the aim was not to protect the channels of access but to facilitate them. People had the option to subscribe to content or to pay a micro charge for individual items. Because people owned the solution they no longer expected free – except to personal content – so it was possible for things to exist just once and to be accessed many times. In this way the community connected to the local cloudlet and the cloudlets connected to each other and to the corporate clouds.

Recently there had been an increasing business in identity certificates. Local people could choose for their identity to be confirmed by an organisation in their locality; a bank, a library, a hospital, a doctor’s surgery, a school or a church. Each of these would electronically host part of a person’s on line identity with the more established providers, banks and doctors, being used for higher levels of authorisation. Each time a person used their identity, such as to make a purchase on line or complete an application for a service or benefit they made a micropayment to the identity provider via the cloudlet. It was just a few pence but because it was a multi sourced identity it was more reliable and it was no longer password dependent – you were who you said that you were. Just as people vouched for people once upon a time, a local service supported a person’s on line identity.

The decision to put out Parish Cloudlet in Higher Heath hadn’t been without controversy. Whitchurch as the major town had wanted to host it and use up one of the empty industrial units. By putting the facility in Higher Heath the small amount of waste heat it generated was piped to the local nurseries and into the district heating project. The new build was sustainable; it used local materials and incorporated low carbon technology. Yes, it still drew power from the grid but we also put energy into the grid generated from methane and a ten gigawatt wind farm that sat on the periphery of what had, once, been the parish tip.

The introduction of the smart grid had driven the need for universal infrastructure, now it exceeded expectations. The scale of the green retrofit programme raised awareness of the need to save energy and local ownership of the programme drove behaviour change; this in turn created the demand for smarter household goods that worked with the grid; the availability of infrastructure created the conditions which gave manufacturers the confidence to develop appliances which met consumer demand. The energy grids had become pro active rather than re-active. The demand for energy reserves to meet peaks in demand had shifted to energy profiling.

The capability of interconnected smart appliances also allowed the food supply chain to become proactive. A profile of user needs emerged based on food usage; local providers registered their ability to meet local need and then national retail outlets backfilled the rest. Transport costs were reduced, overstocking virtually disappeared and the risk of local shortages was eliminated. National suppliers suffered a loss in trade, yes, shops reduced in size, some jobs were redistributed but the lower costs meant that profitability was maintained.

The impact on transport infrastructure had been significant. Fewer people travelled to work every day, some not at all. The infrastructure investment in the small industrial and office units on the village outskirts meant that young entrepreneurs had somewhere to start their business ideas. Perpetual access to the university network provided innovation support. People who worked locally, spent money locally and the number of small shops on Shrewsbury Street began to grow.

Those that had to travel long distances tended to use the trains that ran more frequently as the local spokes fed the town hubs which linked to the city centres. Trips to the station made use of the network of Zero Emission Vehicles which were maintained in pools of half a dozen or so by members of the community. ZEVs were booked on demand, via the cloudlet and at times of high demand neighbouring villages shared. People’s journeys were profiled and a pattern of use built up over time so that more often than not there was space on a ZEV to get you where you wanted to go. Outside of the cities, the infrequent buses no longer ran without passengers.

I arrived at the gate of the small compound and held my pass to the reader, the gate opened. I noticed one of the cameras swivel towards my position, somebody in the Parish was watching me, I looked towards it and waved. I parked the ZEV and entered the low wooden building through a series of doors until I stood inside the server room. A cluster of racks worked noisily in one half, in the other a new installation was in progress. The cloudlet had increasingly started to provide thin client services. It was scalable, reliable, and people no longer needed to buy heavyweight processing. The new installation was a bit of an experiment. Recent developments in entanglement technology offered unprecedented speed of processing over the relatively short distances from the villages to the cloudlet. This did away with the need for fibre. The two ends of the device are brought together and then one end remains with the user while the other is installed in the rack at the cloudlet, which then talks to the fibre network. Somehow, they talk to each other. For now the fibre network is still needed for everything else but within 10 years, who knows.

I returned the ZEV to its bay in the pool and hooked it up to the grid. People were appearing on the streets, the odd vehicle drove along the bypass, and it was going to be a warm day. What now; a holiday, a rest? Possibly but then long walks, take lots of pictures, more time with grand children and who knows, I may even write a blog.


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