Post-brexit broadband and a sense of wonder and excitement

With the UK on a path to exiting the European Union, a world-leading digital infrastructure becomes more important than ever as the UK has to compete with the entire world, rather than simply European partners. Broadband is an essential part of that, and today we’ve had yet another report on progress.

There are two types of progress, broadly speaking: coverage and speed. We clearly want the maximum practical coverage, and if you already have coverage you want it faster. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee favoured coverage, quite rightly, because it is important that everyone has a basic level of access. They’re also talking about the ‘universal service obligation’ (USO) of 10Mbits/s moving to 30Mbits/s by 2020.

There are also two types of coverage - fixed and mobile. In rural areas, wireless connectivity is a valid way of reaching people, but in urban areas the contention becomes the problem. Irrespective of that last bit of connectivity, the core network needs to be able to switch all that traffic!

However, we could have an entirely different scale of ambition. Copper infrastructure is pretty useless for data - relatively speaking - and there will come a point when we have the same level of fibre coverage as we have copper. The only question is how soon that is.

On fibre, a 30-meg USO is ridiculous; it would not only be reasonable to offer a 1Gbit/s USO, but it becomes much less of an issue anyway. Fibre connections are dramatically more reliable compared with ADSL, can run over very long distances, and the bandwidth can be symmetric (fast up and down). It’s a series of very clever technical tricks that let us get tens of megabits out of copper, while for fibre we’ve got 10Tbits/s commercial links and 100Tbits/ proven in the lab.

So it is reasonable to expect that over the lifetime of an optical fibre, technology would be available to get a million times faster than a 1Gbit/s to your house. So if we put in fibre today we could get 100x the current proposed USO and a potential to go between ten and a hundred million times faster before we need to replace them. Plus you can always have more than one.

Doing this runs into the tens of billions of pounds of infrastructure investment; less than Crossrail or HS2, and a tiny fraction of the fall in the FTSE 100 after the referendum, but still rather a lot of money. For people who live and breathe tech that sounds like a bargain, because we have some conceptual basis for how important that is. However, for the people making the decisions it is less clear. There are lots of complex reasons why this is difficult, but the most intractable difficulty has been articulating what people would use it for.

This is where there is a substantial clash of cultures.

The current USO puts a minimum provision at 28.8k - based on a spec from 1994. Over the same timeframe computers have grown in speed by roughly 100,000 times. During that period we’ve seen a shift in emphasis from performance to performance per watt (i.e. from raw power to power / energy), and the shift to mobile devices. We’ve seen the rise of the web, social media, smartphones and apps, changing the fabric of our society. They’re all designed around the assumption that processor power, storage and memory will always grow each year... and bandwidth won’t.

This fundamentally constrains thinking - and the last 20 years of tech history were wildly unpredictable, and interesting, and lucrative. So when someone in the mainstream of tech produces a new platform capability they say ‘we don’t know how people are going to use it’ they mean that in the sense of a new world of creativity. They mean that there will be myriad unforeseen creations and benefits, and approach it with a sense of wonder and excitement.

So if we moved to a USO of 1Gbit/s then saying ‘we don’t know how people are going to use it’ we can either view it as an unacceptable risk for a major infrastructure investment or with a national sense of wonder and excitement.

We could see that as a platform that would create jobs, encourage investment, attract multi-national organisations, inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs, support public service operations and delivery, cut down on transportation... and so on.

If we look outside the telecoms sector at what broadband investment - wired and wireless - would bring about, that changes our perspective. If we look at it from the cultural perspective of the tech industry it changes it again. If we re-examine the UK’s place outside the EU it moves into the world of national survival.

So maybe it’s time for us to start considering a different level of step change - ditch the USO that the telcos hate, and just talk about how we get dark fibre everywhere asap and let the market take care of the rest.

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About the author

Thoughts on membership, the profession, and the occasional pseudo-random topic from the BCS Policy and Community Director.

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