Digging for victory in next-generation broadband

Broadband coverage outside of major towns and cities has been a sore point for rural communities for some time. It is easy for well-connected urban users to forget just what a pain the lack of service can be for individuals and small businesses in remote parts of the UK.

BT seems to win itself few friends, and the current regulatory environment – in particular, around the way that business rates are applied to fibre-optic cables – makes it difficult for those rural users to cost-effectively get high-speed connectivity.

You have to appreciate the sheer chutzpah of cattle farmer Christine Conder in digging up a field and having her own fibre cable laid – but lament the fact she had to do it.

Broadband roll-out has been a double-edged sword for too long. The standard services we use now were the fastest-adopted technology ever. The UK is one of the most connected countries in the world. It now seems strange to think back to the turn of the century when arguments raged over funding broadband infrastructure.

BT and ISPs did not want to spend the cash because they said there was no content to encourage customers to sign up. Content providers complained that nobody could get fast enough access to make their sites worth using. Government said it was up to the market to decide.

The rapid take-up since BT decided to invest in broadband proved that if you build it, people will come.

It is frustrating, therefore, that we seem to be having very similar arguments now about next-generation broadband. Nobody wants to fund the roll-out outside of the commercially attractive urban areas. A different government still wants to leave things to the market – the market says it can’t afford the cost. Yet everyone agrees that high-speed broadband access is an economic essential. The government doesn’t need to spend the cash – but it does need to facilitate a change, through persuasion, coercion or policy.

Meanwhile, the Christine Conders of the world are left stuck behind a logjam with seemingly little chance of a breakthrough – unless they have a digger handy.