I was the target of some misdirected anger yesterday. Appearing as I seem to do most days, on a regional radio programme to explain some aspect of technology, another guest took issue with my answers.
Her anger was entirely righteous. She lives in a remote part of Scotland barely served with telecommunications services. Some might argue that this is the price you pay for choosing to live in such a place, but I’m pretty sure that smug opinion would only last until they found themselves on holiday there or somewhere similar. Unable to get WiFi for their Facebook fix, or more importantly, a phone signal to call for help, they would quickly recant.
The reality is that reliable, fast broadband service is now a necessity in life and in business wherever you are. That’s not because of the tyranny of some imposed system, but because technology presents such an advantage to everyone else — and to the people providing the services you want to consume — that not having it it places you at a distinct disadvantage.
This is part of the mechanism by which technology drives change. It creates this competitive pull while also through constant innovation in price, performance and most importantly, accessibility, allowing ever more people to develop their own advantage. Growing pull, falling friction. The effect is a long, slippery slope getting ever steeper.
The lady’s ire was misdirected at me because she didn’t like my suggestion that the best bet for her and her neighbours to get more reliable internet access is through the mobile networks, not through DSL. She argued, rightly, that Openreach, BT’s arm’s length company that is responsible for the final mile of copper wire that connects homes and businesses, should be obliged to improve the connections to her area. After all, the government made a big pot of money available for precisely this and BT won every single bid.
Unfortunately, some of us have been lobbying on this issue for a few years now, and we know that waiting on a company that has an effective monopoly across large parts of the country to do something that — even with the funding — is unlikely to make it any money, is futile.
Instead of waiting on the government to beat a company, armed with lobbyists, into doing what it doesn’t want to, we should look for competitive pressures to do what government won’t.
As it is, even the very shape of the market is in the government’s control.
Firstly, the way the rural broadband schemes were developed made it almost certain BT would win every bid. Any future schemes need to be more open.
Secondly, competitors still pay significantly more tax than BT on laid cables. Given their current dominance, the tax regime should perhaps be skewed away from BT, rather than towards them, especially where local start-ups or community interest companies are the alternative.
Should these things happen it will still take some time for more competitive schemes to emerge.
In the meantime the best bet for lots of people is the rapidly advancing mobile networks.
A combination of infrastructure sharing, new technologies, and new frequencies, should give the mobile networks progressively greater reach and faster service across the more remote parts of England, Scotland and Wales. Much better than the service they provide today in these areas, which can only generously be described as ‘patchy’.
It’s not a perfect solution. Not even my preferred one. But it’s the one I think that is most likely to deliver in the near term.
And the competitive pressure it creates may even spur BT into action.