I was away in Edinburgh last week at the launch of the Digital Scotland report. A fine piece of work which creates a new way of looking at Next Generation Access in the UK by suggesting that Scotland creates a Digtial Scotland Trust with a number of internet hubs which serve 2,000 people or about 800 households.
The report was refreshing – but what I found most interesting (and at the same time most frustrating) is that many of the ideas, issues and blockages on the deployment of Next Generation Access are not new. The same ideas were being talked about back in 2002! Yet this time around there are a whole new set of academics and enlightened individuals in the wider society beginning to take much more of an interest because Next Generation Broadband Access is at the heart of the UK’s competitive position in the world and we are seen to be slipping behind.
Professor Michael Fourman kicked-off his talk with the report commissioned by Google which came out that day called the Connected Kingdom – which says that the UK is Number 1 for e-commerce.
So the story gets confusing as those looking at this video will say “we are not slipping behind, we are number 1 for e-commerce – which is what really matters”.
The critical next step is to find a way to educate the politicians on the benefits of NGA and wider ICT to their (drastically reduced) public sector programmes and to see if we can bridge the investment gap of about £10-15 bn to accelerate rollout to the Final Third (both geographically disconnected and socially excluded). A trivial amount for a five year programme in an industry that is worth over £100bn to the UK economy each year. We need to move from a connected kingdom to a hyper-connected kingdom which includes everyone, not just the digitally advantaged.
Although BT has committed a substantial amount of new investment, it cannot crack the problem on its own. In many ways, the real test for success will be how “open” the so-called OpenReach really is.
The additional investment is needed over-and-above the (approximately £5bn committed by BT, Virgin Media and the government’s BDUK division with any match-funding from Europe). It is needed to implement the difficult bits of the 20 year programme which we are half-way through. And it needs to be invested alongside some new thinking on business models, shared assets, shared investment schemes and business rates rationalisation.
The difficult part of the implementation (of the final third) has started. It is time for the more enlightened thinking from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (and the August report from the Scottish Reform Trust) as well as the Foundation for Science and Technology to bring new thinking and political momentum to this old problem. With right political alignment and the realisation that the public sector cuts can only be achieved by investing in a Hyper-Connected Kingdom the required new money will flow in to fill the gap.
As some of you may know, Scotland is (geologically) part of Canada – and only joined Europe relatively recently (in earth time). Rod Mitchell, my namesake, pointed out to me that much of the thinking that went into the Welsh Assembly Government’s commissioning of the FibreSpeed network in North Wales came from Scotland. I hope this time around that Scotland actually benefits from its own thinking – rather than exporting the ideas without getting the true benefits of implementing them at home!
Putting the UK back at the front with the “Best Broadband in Europe in this government” is totally possible. It is a simple matter of some clear thinking, a few politicians who “get” it and a bit of rocket fuel under the BDUK and Ofcom to tweak some of the industry structures!
Watch this space!