Superfast mobile internet technology is on the way – but Britain has to build fibre networks to bring broadband up to speed
Britain punched above her weight in the physical Olympics. But how well will she do in the much more important broadband Olympics – the race for economic success in which digital speeds will be crucial. It is reckoned by the likes of Ericsson and Arthur D Little that GDP increases by 1% for every 10% increase in broadband penetration. The announcement that some of us will be able to hook up to the fourth generation (4G) high-speed network, with speeds over three times faster than existing 3G, as early as next month is great news. But is it enough?
Think globally. Mobile is the future, but it will be umbilically linked to having an ultra-fast national fibre network to exploit the amazing products in the pipeline. Until this happens most of us won’t fully benefit from the speed 4G can bring. As the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, himself says:
“In order to cope with capacity, we will need to get that mobile signal on to a fibre backbone as soon as possible. So no false choice between mobile or fixed line, between fibre or high-speed wireless: all technologies – including satellite – are likely to have a part to play, and our approach must be flexible enough to harness them all.”
Hunt is correct when he says that speed is vital and that mobile data use is tripling every year as people desert their desktops for phones and mobile devices of all sizes. The number of mobile phones will soon exceed the number of people on the planet. But it is not enough for Hunt to say his ambition is for Britain to be one of the major players in Europe. We should be looking to Asia where a government-sponsored strategy in South Korea has broadband speeds we can only dream of. Not long ago, Nokia of Europe was the runaway success in smartphones. Today it is Samsung of South Korea.
Hunt rules out government intervention with the seductive argument that if the state were to build a fibre to the home network now, it would cost more than £25bn, which we would get far more cheaply – and far more quickly – by harnessing the entrepreneurialism of the private sector.
But hang on, Mr Hunt. We had that argument 25 years ago – yes 25 years ago, before smartphones and the world wide web came on our horizon. Margaret Thatcher rejected BT’s offer to build fibre to the home in exchange for delivering video. There would have been obvious monopoly problems, but I wonder what Britain would have looked like today if it had happened. Back then, those – including the Guardian – shouting for universal broadband didn’t know what entrepreneurs would do with it apart from video. The argument was “just do it” and supply will create its own demand because people won’t create exciting products to run on a network that doesn’t exist.
Today is different. The roll call of things that will spring from really fast broadband has never been more exciting: being treated at home by your doctor, online universities and training colleges, high-definition video conferencing in the home, interactive TV, having a dinner party with holographic representations of friends around the world (don’t laugh, I have seen demos) – and this is without knowing products that have yet to be invented.
One of the most exciting areas is 3D printing – printing out anything from a button to a house layer by layer from a design on your desktop or phone. The European Airbus is experimenting with building a jumbo jet in this way. 3D printing brings the industrial revolution into your home, maybe reclaiming it from China.
But to succeed we need government involvement in the strategy and providing money where the private sector won’t go – like bridging the rural digital divide so citizens there aren’t deprived of the huge advances in online education and health to be made with broadband. Such investment will have a huge return on capital – though not in the lifetime of this government – by propelling Britain into the forefront of the internet revolution, which will not only benefit existing industries from creatives to finance but will also give us the chance of being in the vanguard of developing new products. Britain’s Olympics success couldn’t have happened without government money, and strategic leadership based on our cyclists’ policy of aggregating the gains from marginal improvements. This is a philosophy that could change our economic future. Let’s start with broadband.