It is inconceivable to think now that just 5 years ago rural Britain faced the prospect of no access to broadband. The visionaries of the time, who mostly ended up playing an active part in the Community Broadband Network (established by ruralnet|uk and The Phone Co-op) and the Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC), could see that this would be a complete disaster for rural areas. They were right weren't they? Anyone disagree? I thought not.
With the internet becoming a major delivery channel for nearly everything, including Government and other public services, how would the Government have coped with a group of people equivalent in size to a major city who were excluded from such services?
But it's OK now. Virtually everyone has access to broadband. Or do they?
The trouble with broadband is that it is a rapidly evolving technology. It's not like electricity or gas. Supply people with that and they've got it for life. With broadband, today's broadband is tomorrow's narrowband.
When I was project manager of the WREN Telecottage in the early 90s we were a trial site for ISDN and when the internet arrived and we hooked up an ISDN router, we thought we'd died and gone to heaven! Web pages loaded in an instant, just as fast, it seemed, as the stuff from our own server located 6 feet away. But you try ISDN today. You'd be VERY disappointed. Things have moved on.
We have a situation a bit like the deadly tryst that exists between hardware and software producers – faster machines beget more demanding software which demands faster hardware and so it goes on. In the same way, as 'broadband' gets faster so online service providers produce services which demand faster broadband speeds.
So what should happen in rural areas when the ADSL systems they have been provided with prove totally inadequate? Should organisations like the Regional Development Agencies meddle in the market again and fill in with whatever the next generation of broadband is? I don't think so.
The trouble with 'market meddling' is that is screws things up. All those rural communities who have been provided with ADSL in places where there was market failure are probably stuck with it for sometime as those who have invested will need to see a return on their investment, and that takes time.
So, should we just leave these rural communities to miss out the THE economic and social development driver of our time? No we shouldn't and we should meddle in the market again but this time we need to do it properly and give these communities a lot more than the market is prepared to deliver at the time.
I think I am right in saying that a system of 'fibre to the street' (or village centre) and very very high speed wireless links from there is about as good as it can get, as far as broad band is concerned, for the foreseeable future.
So next time we meddle in the market let's not do it reluctantly. Let's do it with real enthusiasm and properly.
- I have written about rural broad band before here: my 2004 posting.
- The book pictured, written by one of the rural broadband warriors, Lindsey Annison, can be purchased here as a paperback or download.
- Read more about South Witham Broadband and the Community Broadband Network.