Friday, 30 January 2009

Teh Internets are growing...

No matter what George W. Bush (remember him...?!) may have feared when he mused
Will the highways of the Internet become more few?,
it seems the world wide web and associated technologies have almost global reach. Almost.

In the early days of the internet (whenever they were...), we were told to expect a contraction of the World into a Global Village, interconnected such that a Ghanaian farmer could buy seed from an Ohio producer and sell his grain to a Chinese importer who'd distribute to a Bulgarian bakery, all at the click of a button. Whilst such e-commerce has been facilitated by the advent of high-speed broadband, all is not well in the land of Os and Is.

According to a preliminary version of Lord Carter's Digital Britain report,

We are at the point of technology development where we need a programme to ensure that everyone can connect to the digital economy, that its benefits and advantages are available to all

So many of us now take for granted these "benefits and advantages" - booking tickets in advance, buying goods and services either exclusive to or enhanced by the internet, getting up-to-the-minute news and views from all over the world. And yet so many of us don't have the means, equipment, know-how or inclination to do so - some 40% of the population according to an ONS release (pdf). Carter's interim report identifies barriers to more widespread roll-out of fibre-optic cables carrying truly high-speed internet connections, and promises to deliver 'up to' 2MB/s access to all households by 2012. This ambitious-sounding target will be achieved largely on the back of existing ADSL networks, and by getting private sector providers (i.e. BT and Virgin, the two biggest players) to fulfil this obligation virtually voluntarily.

There's no reason these companies wouldn't expand their customer base, right? Maybe there is. The massive capital investment required to equip remote parts of the country, and indeed some urban areas, with truly fast (i.e. up to 100MB/s) broadband, are quite simply beyond the means of individual corporations - BT has promised to lay cable designed to deliver

up to 40Mb/s to 10m homes by 2010,
which would come at a cost of some £1bn to BT. It's estimated, however, that to provide such access to the rest of the country would take some £25bn, far beyond the resources of BT, Virgin or any other company. Besides, for any risk-averse private corporation there's a scale of diminishing returns, where any extra investment beyond a minimum would provide less and less profit as they reach less and less profitable customers. And yet these customers - the elderly, the urban poor, the newly arrive immigrants and the remote country-dwellers - are precisely those vulnerable to being left out in the cold by the hot new digital revolution.

So where next? According to a previous report on digital communications in the UK, there is little incentive for the government to invest directly in broadband provision - this report concluded that

the short term case for a major government intervention was limited.
Perhaps from a commercial standpoint this holds true - but this doesn't address the question of how to ensure internet access is available to all and at reasonable cost. Remember the lessons of the past - failure to provide adequate public investment in railway infrastructure 30 years or so ago, relying instead on market-driven private investment, means that the UK's public transport network is slower, more expensive and less reliable than that of our European counterparts. One can only hope that we don't fall into the same trap this time, and that we take seriously the threat that exclusion from the digital revolution poses.

Besides, it doesn't take the Brain of Britain to realise that many, many people are losing their jobs right now, and that providing jobs for many of them installing new digital infrastructure fulfils a public good as well as preventing long-term unemployment - c'mon Westminster, read what's out there on t'internet and put in into action...!


gimpyblog said...

I'm slightly worried by a government that sets a target of 2 megabits (not megabytes) a second. I have 24mb/s at home and find that inadequate at times, it should double in a few months (for no extra money). They are setting their targets incredibly low, do you think they understand teh internets?

teekblog said...

Too true... Aim low and your targets may be met, that's how the gubmint understands politics. Fact is places like Singapore have 100mb/s in the home, so it can be done.

Part of me (the cynical, sneering part...) thinks the govt is deliberatley setting it's sights low as it's bloody petrified of what high speed Internet could mean - an informed, activist public mobilized and willing to take on Big Brother.

Btw look out for tomorrows letter page in the Grauniad...!

pj said...

Singapore is less than 300 square miles.

NM said...

spot on - the internet, like roads and railways, are public goods that accrue benefits to all. The internet will increasingly become a primary means of not only information dissemination but also education - and when leaving the 'net out of the hands of the poor, you further create a class and knowledge gap.

It's strange that there is little political will to invest in broadband, considering that there is a very little "Not in My Backyard" type of argument that an opponent to govt. investment in broadband could make. Not to mention that it is to the credit of IT infrastructure investment that allowed the UK's and US's financial services industry to grow so rapidly through real-time pricing and trade clearing and cross-border banking. (We need not get into the end result of all of that)

teekblog said...

@ pj: yes, fair point, but with a population of over 4 million they're so densly populated that the cabling of Singapore serves as a reminder that even cities with roads to disrupt, holes to dig and so on can be connected.