Reflections on what might have been
A week in politics is a long time, a week in technology is an eternity. Why is it then that in the last week I have felt that time has stood still for the last 3 years? Firstly we had the latest studies of Britain’s rural broadband not spots; closely followed by Britain’s slowest broadband village. I don’t for one minute wish to underplay the seriousness of the underlying statistics or the risk to service delivery and to the economy of those places. My normal response would be a silent rant about the impotence of the market place to do anything about the situation but hot on the heels of these revelations came the news that a newly launched satellite was the answer. Suddenly satellite was the only viable alternative for providing rural broadband services.
In May 2007 I was responsible for an exhibit at the “Bridging the Broadband Gap” conference in Brussels. It so happened that our stand was right next door to Avanti’s and they were talking about their satellite technology then. It’s taken this long to see it become a reality and I have to take my hat off to them, launching a satellite is no mean feat. Avanti have to realise a return on what must be an enormous investment and while no other service provider is proposing a solution the drawbacks of dialup line uplinks and base stations located in Europe plus the inevitable latency seem to be a small price to pay for a form of connectivity and, it has to be acknowledged, blindingly fast download speeds.
So why bother to register a concern in the face of an entrepreneurial success story? It’s the box ticking mentality of the English political establishment that has me worried. The pressure will be lifted from our principle service provider, local politicians will see a reduction in their mail as broadband issues disappear and the UK government can look a financial saving in the eye and say “thank heaven for that!” let’s move on.
The weather struck again, I’m sure you noticed, especially if you live in the Eastern side of this small island Britain. Even though the freeze was both early and unusual by our standards it brought with it the predictable outcome; the daily commute was disrupted, yet again. Given that I’ve blogged about the British obsession with conducting both business and bureaucracy as if this were the 19th century I couldn’t help looking up at the ceiling and letting out a gasp of despair. Setting aside social needs and personal preference, how many of those individuals who struggled through snow and ice really needed to be there? I even heard one person quoted on the BBC as saying it’s a shame that people have to be there in person to sign invoices. What? The truth is that we are incapable of adopting a digital mindset. You can only manage people if you can see the whites of their eyes. What if they stop working and watch daytime TV? What if they use their equipment provided by their employer to download child pornography, what will the Daily Mail say? The preferred option is to subject the national economy to the cost of lost working hours, grid lock and personal injury. There has to be another way, there is and it’s digital.
The crowning moment for me was the announcement by a seriously large County Council that they were going to initiate a rural business hub project to tackle the poor infrastructure in their area. For a moment I had to stop and think, had I been thrown back in time? Perhaps they hadn’t heard about the satellite launch? I can applaud any attempt to support local businesses with infrastructure developments but I despair again at the complete lack of innovative thought behind the idea of business hubs in the 21st century. Have they not thought that if they can get connectivity to a hub they can use cheap technology to provide connectivity to the business? Why not operate a 50% grant scheme and use de minimis rules to avoid state aid. Why not take the opportunity to aggregate domestic demand and make a business case for investment in fibre. Why not invest in the technology to create local data clouds and then sell access to larger companies so that employees can work from home. Did they consider the options, I don’t really know but I suspect not. Would any of these ideas work, I’m not sure I haven’t done the sums but if you don’t investigate the possibilities you will never know and you won’t generate other options along the way.
This is what frustrates me most of all, it’s the unwillingness to think about the full potential that digital technology offers. While the cries of “what about the cost” and “what about the risk” are loud and clear those behind the voices fail to consider the social and economic cost of not being digital in the true 21st century sense.
Or was my first instinct right, I am stuck in a time warp and it’s really 2007!