Not symmetric, not fast, not super, not fibre – and not relevant.

29 Oct

hi=-tech buildingThe ‘Cities-are-Supreme’ brigade gathered for the RSA’s Cities Growth Commission launch yesterday.  They seemed oddly united in their view that rural dwellers should accept relative broadband poverty and stop whining.  The city enthusiasts may be searching for economic growth but curiously they overlook the poverty of digital infrastructures within their own cities.

Thirty years ago, as a young teenager, my son watched TV ads with far greater interest than he summoned for any of the programmes.  Eventually he concluded that you should always ask, ‘Why are they telling me this?’

In the late 1800’s an early expert in the new field of advertising reckoned that the message should be delivered 20 times before it gained acceptance.   From childhood we know the power of repetition.

It may be heroic engineering to squeeze a little data through a copper wire designed to do something completely different but that alone is no cause for celebration.

It may be commercially ‘prudent’ to avoid paying tax (and a tad less than communitarian or socially responsible) and it may be ‘convenient’ to overlook the provisions for asset replacement funding but we should not celebrate this prudent convenience – we should ask, ‘Prudent and convenient for whom?’

Next year no doubt someone will come up with the idea of ‘celebrating’ the 30th anniversary of the privatisation of British Telecom.  For free market enthusiasts the timing was fortuitous.  They got it off the government books five years before the penny dropped and digital communications became understood as an essential utility.  But no matter – we could pretend that we now had choice.

Even better – now we had a market we could also have a market regulator.  Oftel did a really great job – determinedly reducing prices (remember RPI-x?) and, as the incumbent felt so squeezed, the regulator very reasonably allowed that an irreducible part of their line rental charges should compensate for their need to fund the replacement of the ageing copper network on an 18-year basis.

By that reckoning we should by now all be benefitting from an access network rebuilt nearly twice over but, curiously, it seems not to have happened quite that way.   Far more convenient it seems to try and squeeze digital data down copper wires and extract much value as possible from the legacy analogue network before anyone suggests that the emperor is not wearing any clothes.  Yes, we are back to children’s stories and endless repetition. These clothes are super. They are fast. Say it often enough and folks will buy it.

Fortunately we are blessed with children who do not buy it.   They know that these clothes are not woven with fibre.  They know they are not fit for purpose.  They know that muddling through with not do.  They know that so-called ‘fibre broadband’ is not fully fibred, is not super, is not fast, is not symmetric, is not future-proofed and is not relevant for they way we live now.

They also know that they’ve been massively let down by a generation who trusted too much and did not dare to ask, “Why are they telling me this?”

The City Growth Commission will ask lots of questions – mostly about empowerment of cities, their leadership and their capacity to prosper.  In gathering evidence they’ll not apparently be asking, ‘Where are the UK’s Gigabit-Cities and who is building them?

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