We hear a lot about the internet causing “disruption”, i.e. radically shaking up and undermining established ways of doing things. I’ve been thinking about some real disruption being led from sources which might seem unlikely.
Now, I’m a great believer in being ambitious in the technological sphere. I think we have to think radically and be prepared to push at boundaries if we are going to achieve real change and demonstrable benefits. And I believe broadband is one of these spheres. In my opinion the economic development of the UK is being held up by a lack of ambition in how we take broadband forward. Yes, the Government, European Union and local authorities are investing in getting “superfast” broadband ever further into the countryside, but what they are investing in is constrained by the “art of the possible”; by which I mean it is being put into delivering more of the same, within the parameters of what certain big players are prepared to deliver, and what the market demand is perceived to be.
Broadband is one of those areas where I believe the Henry Ford doctrine of “don’t invest in faster horses” applies. The market demand for faster broadband speeds is limited by what people believe is possible and what they think they need now. It fails to take into account the pace of technological change, and the fact that more bandwidth hungry uses, applications and appliances are coming into use every day. I fear that the investment which is now being made in today’s broadband technology will have to be done all over again in a few years time when demand once again exceeds the available bandwidth of the solutions currently being installed. That is why I advocate that means should be found, wherever possible, to ensure that broadband installation is future-proofed; and that means installing fibre-to-the-premises, not halfway houses which introduce bottle necks into the system.
All this is vey frustrating. And yet, there are heroic souls out there who have bitten the bullet and are installing their own future-proof connections. Prime among these, in my opinion, are the farmers and villagers of the north Lancashire B4RN project, who are raising money from their own resources and digging hundreds of miles of trenches, to install fibre to the premises connections to properties in some of the north of England’s most remote areas. B4RN is already delivering 1Gbps (1000Mbps) symmetrical connections to its first customers, and those connections are capable of being turned up to even greater speeds should future needs demand.
The irony in this, for me, is that we now have people living in one of the country’s most remote areas who are experiencing the fastest internet speeds available. It will be some time before B4RN has a critical mass of customers connected to the network, but, I ask myself, how disruptive will 1Gbps rural communities be? We will shortly have digital farmers and digital villagers shrinking distances and finding new ways of operating that most of us have never thought about before. And what about the potential for geek vacations to the B&Bs and holiday cottages with the hyperfast connections? This is turning on its head the traditional notions of silicon valleys and technology roundabouts, where we think of the cities as the engines of technological innovation.
And so, the other day, I spotted this story about Hyperoptic offering Gigabit broadband to tower blocks in London. And this made me think. Social landlords are struggling at the moment to get more of their tenants online before the move to online management of benefits payments and the Government’s “Digital by Default” agenda further disadvantages them. What if we used approaches like that of Hyperoptic (allied with a bit of B4RN grit) to create Gigabit social housing tenants. OK, many tenants might be reluctant to go online; but what if they were offered the opportunity to become the fastest tenants in the world? Would they take that opportunity? And would it be truly transformational? I think its an experiment worth trying.
If B4RN can place the remotest villagers at the forefront of the technological revolution, why can’t social landlords do the same with some of their tenants? Lets have true disruption led from the bottom up.