Poor Relations – UK Connectivity – A Buffering Generation

I had the pleasure of attending the Transform Digital: Aberdeen conference recently.  Whilst it was encouraging and somewhat inspiring to hear of the plans to deliver fibre in that city, we were lucky enough to hear from speakers from Norway and Stockholm who were, it must be said, extremely disparaging about the current connectivity options in the UK.  Indeed they gave the distinct impression that they were in some way digital missionaries preaching in an under-developed and unexplored part of the world.

It’s only when in the company of fellow Europeans that you realise that the pathetic speeds, particularly upload speeds and connectivity options that are available in the UK are a hindrance to the full exploitation of the undoubted digital talent and potential that the UK possesses.  Still I pointed out to our Nordic brethren that tortoisian upload speeds in Britain gives us plenty of time to drink tea and coffee during the watching of the blue bar that dominates our days.

One project which was of interest was the Stokab (www.stokab.se) project where the city council of Stockholm built and continue to expand a passive fibre network throughout the city.  In their own words the Stokab project has the following aims:

“The goal of the company has been to build a competition-neutral infrastructure capable of meeting future communication needs, spur economic activity, diversity and freedom of choice, as well as minimising disruption to the city’s streets.”

In simple terms, Stokab stick in the fibre and the vendors pay them a fee to deliver a service over that fibre.  The returns for Stokab have only been generated over a long term, and it takes a 20 year vision to deliver any kind of decent financial return (net profits of SEK 175 million in 2013).  Now this length of investment and return cycle isn’t one that a corporate entity could consider, as the gap between investment and infrastructure spend and return is obviously too long.

In my opinion what the Stokab experiences tells us is this type of project must be done by government at some level and requires a cross party consensus to ensure delivery and a long term commitment.  Can we really say that the reliance on private providers in the UK has worked?  We are only just seeing large scale penetration of fibre to the cabinet (fttc).  The economic, social and lifestyle benefits outlined by Stokab were profound.  It’s no accident that both Spotify and Skype were born in Stockholm.  Surely this is proof, if any were needed, that data connectivity projects must be considered and managed in the same way as other large scale infrastructure projects such as railways and roads.

Surely it’s time for the UK to move beyond trying to build a digital economy on antiquated copper wires.  The Stokab experience shows that a local authority can fundamentally shape the digital destiny of a city or region.  This is of course possibly fanciful and ludicrous if following conventional local authority budgeting methods however given the longer term returns demonstrated by the Stokab model surely municipal bonds could be utilised as a funding method.

A local authority could radically re-position an area, town or indeed rural economy as an attractive location for the type of industries that relay on high speed connectivity.

Written by Kenny Walker

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Inspired By Technology Limited