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Communicating Communications PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Thursday, 24 June 2010 07:38

Head of CommunicationsConference speakers often delight in regaling audiences with anecdotes of past ‘expert’ predictions that proved hopelessly wide of the mark.

It matters not whether it was ever seriously thought that the market for telephones amounted to one per town or that the world might need just six computers – the point of these stories is to illustrate the boundaries of acceptable imagination and the challenge of explaining fresh ideas to sceptics.

Even in the high-tech echelons of Telco’s, such is the devotion to making the last set of ideas work properly, there is often little enthusiasm for embracing anything that is shockingly new.  If, however, the new designs are unstoppable then the usual approach is to plot some gradual transition to take away the pain of ‘scrap and replace’ upheaval.

This evolutionary approach usually requires a great deal of demand suppression.  In the past two decades we’ve had Telco’s and their regulators tell us ‘that all this Internet stuff is just a playground for cowboys’(1992), that ‘no-one really needs broadband – leastways not yet’(1999) and don’t worry, we are ‘an advanced digital nation’(2009) - this latter claim justified it seems by the amount of time we all spend watching TV.

Unfortunately for those who would prefer to slow the rate of change, new technologies and their applications are accelerating and pushing ever harder at the boundaries of ‘last generation’ infrastructures.  What’s happening is that the new digital divisions are not just between the old Internet ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ populations (still a significant societal issue) but are creating a massive gulf between the economic growth prospects and societal cohesion of entire nations.

In the UK, the incumbent operator has convinced itself that the short-term economics of VDSL (fibre to larger local cabinets and shorter copper lines thereafter) provides a natural upgrade path to the last fudge that gave us ADSL.  Meanwhile other countries are looking at a copper-switch-off plan – on a scale reminiscent of other major switchovers - DC to AC electricity, Town Gas to North Sea Gas, and Shillings to 5p.

No-one can yet show beyond doubt that all the economic and societal benefits that might flow from a copper-switch-off plan will be delivered.  No-one really knows exactly how much the economy of Amsterdam will be boosted by its CityNet.  No-one can yet say with certainty that Australia’s National Broadband Plan will survive the grumpy onslaught of the Naysayers.

But no-one who has ever bothered to check can doubt the local impacts of Open Access FTTH networks in Swedish communities or, indeed, in many other European countries.  In local patches across the USA communities are beginning to realise that not far behind is not good enough’While folks in Boston (Mass) get upset that their best broadband services are pathetic compared to Bucharest they take no comfort that Boston scores tenfold over Belfast. 

It is this resurgence of local investment activity that is so unsettling for national incumbents, for their ubiquitous top-down models and over-estimated costs of upheaval.  No doubt some alarmingly ‘extreme fragmentation’ model would be a problem if it ever happened, but history shows a clear cycle of fragmented innovation followed by aggregation and, this time around, the aggregation agenda is already in place to give greater viability to many local schemes.

The mere fact that most UK commentary on broadband is fixated on the level of download speeds is an indication of how ill-informed we are.  There maybe some awareness of the growing significance of better upload speeds and folks will grumble about the hopelessness of world cup football via the Internet, but the key future determinant of ‘fitness for purpose’ will be latency – the round trip delay time that will in future be severely tested by ‘Cloud Computing’.

How fast all this transformation will happen in the UK, how soon we start reviving local news and community media organisations, how quickly we can implement ‘connected health’ devices at home; all this and more hinges on that earlier phrase – ‘no-one who has ever bothered to check’ – for we are an island nation and relatively under-exposed to what is going on elsewhere.

Never has there been a greater need for local authorities, community leaders, local business leaders, local media organisations, health service providers, societal activists and voluntary workers, to get out more - to go and see and understand what huge difference a little fibre provided in the right way can make to ordinary lives and economic growth.   If we choose to fall asleep at this wheel we will wake up looking at what might later be explained as an unfortunate accident.  Misfortune certainly, but no accident.

Travel broadens the mind and you don’t have to travel very far to discover that broadband is a great deal broader abroad.



The article was informed by INCA - the Independent Networks Cooperative Association and their enabling tools and facilitation services for the creation and deployment of local Open Access networks.

The next two events in the 2010 NextGen Roadshow series are  8th September in Edinburgh, and on 22/23rd November at the International Conference Centre in Birmingham.

See also  'Community Study Tours'  and 'Measuring recovery from a decade of delay' 


Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 August 2010 17:49

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