Carphone Warehouse and TalkTalk chairman Sir Charles Dunstone says he supports the argument that the £33bn budget for the HS2 high-speed railway would be better spent on improving the UK’s broadband infrastructure.
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Critics of the HS2 plan say that by its projected 2026 completion date, trends such as mobile working and video conferencing will mean that fewer people will need to travel from the north to and from London.
Putting some of those billions of pounds of taxpayer money into high-speed fibre-optic broadband across the country would be more forward-thinking and ultimately better for the economy, they say.
Dunstone told Computer Weekly there is a valid case for such an argument, but it would face major regulatory challenges.
“It’s incredibly complicated to do. You would have to split BT in half and BT would fight that very aggressively.
"So the process of trying to do it would take four or five years and you’d be in a regulatory no-man’s land for such a long period, that’s the difficulty,” he said.
The Carphone Warehouse founder was talking to Computer Weekly at the launch of the new Software Gallery exhibit at the National Museum of Computing, located at Bletchley Park.
He said the “extraordinary” shift from PCs to tablets and smartphones is a huge opportunity for the UK software sector, but lamented the fact that Europe and the UK has lost its lead in mobile technology to the US.
“There’s a shift away from Europe to the US which is very marked in terms of the power, which is a bit depressing really. For the last 20 years or so, Europe drove the mobile phone market in standards, technology, product innovation and user interface, and now that’s been taken over completely by Google and Apple. It’s a very stark change,” he said.
But despite his support for switching infrastructure investment from rail to broadband, Dunstone is not a fan of wider government support for the UK technology sector.
Even if you win, you have to keep doing brilliantly because there are smart people in Stockholm or Tel Aviv or Palo Alto who are likely to come and eat your lunch
Sir Charles Dunstone
He cited the example of ICL, the former UK IT figurehead firm that was created by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s by bringing together existing British suppliers in an attempt to compete internationally with IBM. ICL was eventually taken over by Fujitsu of Japan.
“The government is trying hard to encourage Tech City and get people in and create [the right] environment. You walk around [the National Museum of Computing] and see the old ICL machines and see a ham-fisted government attempt to unify everything and create an IT industry and it was an absolute disaster,” said Dunstone.
“What we’re seeing now is an extraordinarily open ecosystem, the barriers to entry are incredibly low, and the best idea and best innovation wins. Even if you win, you have to keep doing brilliantly because there are smart people in Stockholm or Tel Aviv or Palo Alto who are likely to come and eat your lunch. It’s an extraordinarily dynamic environment,” he said.
“I know everyone always says the government should do more, but if you sat at their desk and said, what should I do that I would have confidence would correlate to a good outcome? I don’t know. Perhaps I’m becoming too cynical in my old age. But I’m not sure direct industry stimulus is that easy to do.”
Dunstone highlighted the UK education system as one area where significant improvement is needed to support the tech sector.
“The IT teaching in schools has been lamentable. We only have ourselves and the government to blame for that, undoubtedly,” he said.