Don’t live in a “not-spot” where super-speed broadband does not go. For 20 years we have been happy users of Virgin but over Christmas learned it was all up. Virgin decided that customers like us in a not-spot were commercially valueless, so we were cut loose. A cherished email address is no more.
We are tiny casualties in a much larger new pattern of inequalities and unfairnesses unleashed by digitisation. (These don’t follow the usual geography of inequality – the densest area of not-spots is in the rich City of London.) Last weekuSwitch published a survey of the variability of internet download speeds around the country, revealing an extraordinary patchwork quilt varying from not-spots to speeds at the frontier of current technology.
Nearly everybody now is on basic broadband operating at 2 megabits per second (Mbit/s). But if you want to download high definition TV or stream anything – let alone engage in 3D printing – and not be driven crazy by how slow it is, you need superfast broadband at a minimum of 30 Mbit/s. But within London, residents of Cowley Road, Brixton operate with 1.41 Mbit/s (even slower than my part of London) so that downloading a Facebook page can take up to three days, while in Bulwer Gardens, Barnet, the speed is 64.56 Mbit/s. The slowest in the country is Romney Marsh in Kent; the fastest Sandy Lane, Cannock, in Staffordshire.
By 2017 we are promised that both poor downloads speeds and the phenomenal inequality will be things of the past, and that 95% of the country will have access to superfast broadband. But possible access at a high price is different from actually using it, and in any case technology is moving so fast that by then even superfast broadband will look tame – and the countries ahead of us will have moved on too.
The next phase is ultrafast broadband which will operate at speeds in excess of 100 Mbit/s, opening up yet more scope for wildly differing speeds around the country. Britain is legendarily poor at physical infrastructure; all those weaknesses are now reproducing themselves as the digital age takes off. We simply have to get smarter, not only in the name of basic fairness, but in order to seize the economic and business opportunities.
Digitisation is what you might call a “meta-purpose” technology – even more transformational than general purpose technologies like the railway or the automobile. Yet, as Martha Lane Fox continues to highlight, we don’t evenunderstand the internet. More data has been generated in the last two years than in the history of humanity. Moreover, this data, exponentially growing, can be moved around ever faster: it can be made universally accessible or locked away behind devastatingly effective encryption barriers; it can be translated by 3D printers into tangible artefacts. We can even print synthetic human tissue.
The machines involved can learn to think like human beings by computerising reinforcement learning. Some of the ethical and moral issues raised by digitisation are the most profound human beings have encountered. We can create life; we can create thinking machines; we can delegate fighting and killing to automata. But little of this is in the currency of mainstream debate.
There is no escaping these issues or the opportunities – and within Europe, Britain is a potential leader. Already we have the fastest growing and relatively largest e-commerce sector in Europe. We are the leading European centre for high-tech digital start-ups. The British embrace the online world, and the coalition government has within its self-imposed limits tried to move it along – for example setting the 2017 target for super-broadband access along with a cluster of challenge funds to support investment.
But as the House of Lords’ report Britain’s Digital Future – Make or Break discovered last month, Britain falls a long way short. The challenge funds are undersubscribed. Systemic lack of co-ordination, infrastructure inadequacies, barely believable skill shortages and a financial system that actively inhibits start-ups from becoming so-called “ scale-ups” combine to prevent the country capitalising on its enthusiasm for the new. The Lords’ select committee wants the political parties to put a digital strategy at the heart of their programme for government, copying the Swedes and Estonians. The current roadblocks must be cleared, or by 2020 the game could be up.
On leaving major infrastructure to the private sector and falling behind, Britain has form. Electricity, another transformational technology, was in its rollout initially left –like broadband delivery –to a multiplicity of private providers for the first few decades of the last century. Finally it was declared a vital utility and universal provision guaranteed by the CEGB.
The House of Lords believes that broadband provision has to be given similar utility status now, but wants a smarter relationship between the state and private sector. The government should not be a provider itself, but an “active conductor of the orchestra”, goading, regulating, co-creating and incentivising the necessary public outcomes. In my view this should be part of the remit of a new Infrastructure Bank.
The industry, inevitably and self-interestedly, thinks that broadband providers being defined as public utilities with legal obligations to offer a high quality universal service would undermine investment. But when London is 26th in the world city pecking order for download speeds, a third as fast as those in Stockholm, and inequality of speeds are on the scale reported by uSwitch , its bluff has to be called.
We can’t go like this. ISPs, their services, the digital infrastructure on which all is delivered and even our email addresses have moved from nice-to-have to must-have There has to be a parallel revolution in digital understanding. People don’t get the growing risk of being hacked, the necessity of cybersecurity or the need to protect themselves from intrusive spying by the state. Nor are there enough trained men and women to write the exploding number of computer programmes that are the precondition for digital life. Every undergraduate or graduate student at California’s University of Stanford takes computer science as a core subject or elective. Out of an annual intake of 3,200 undergraduates, Oxford admits 40 to read computer science.
Britain could be a mover and shaker in this unfolding revolution. We need a mindshift and a makeover. As matters stand, it will be another example of great hopes dashed.