As the UK’s full-fibre broadband roll-out gathers pace through 2018 and into 2019, many people continue to believe gigabit services are unnecessary overkill. CityFibre’s Caroline Hughes reckons they’re mistaken.
As a very young child, my brother and I worshiped our ‘now vintage’ Dragon 32 computer. It was no Sinclair ZX Spectrum or BBC Micro, but I’ve never forgotten the fun and enlightenment brought to my childhood by that space-age typewriter!
It came with a few cassette-style games that loaded slowly, loudly and often fifth time lucky, and the only connectivity it had was to the national grid via a power socket. Yet, my brother and I waited patiently, played happily and even spent hours typing in page upon page of computer-magazine-published code to make it draw the simplest of pictures.
In time, our beloved Dragon 32 was superseded in our home by an even more revered Amstrad CPC464. And since those days, countless computers and devices have come and gone in our lives – each more powerful, transformational and immersive than the last.
Little did I know back then that I would spend my career in the heart of the telecommunications industry, or that almost 40 years later I would be sat here reflecting on how far our use of computing technology has come and how dependent we all are on the speed and quality of the connectivity it now demands.
There was also no way I could ever have imagined that by now I would’ve worked for a company like CityFibre for almost three years; helping to realise its founders’ mission to roll-out whole-city full-fibre broadband networks across the UK and celebrating the gigabit speed services that are now setting new connectivity standards for homes and business across Britain.
Anyone who takes time to reflect on how far our industry has come in the last 10 years – let alone since the early home computing days of the 1980s – would be foolish to underestimate where the next 10 to 40 years might catapult us. Yet as CityFibre continues to march ahead, executing its plans to deliver full fibre connections to over 5 million homes by 2025, I see some astonishing comments, from some unexpected naysayers!
In most cases, the announcement that our fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) services are coming to an area elicits a widespread, heartfelt welcome, huge sighs of relief, or both! But mixed among the overwhelmingly positive reactions are occasional comments that “homes simply don’t ‘need’ gigabit speeds” and that what we are doing is “overkill” or “just for publicity”. And while the average person can be forgiven for this, shockingly, these comments usually come from individuals working within the telecoms industry!
Surveys, like the one carried we out among UK gamers last year, reinforce the short-sightedness of such comments by putting a magnifying glass on the impact that poor connectivity has on this sub-segment of the consumer market. Among other facts, the survey data highlighted that, at today’s average UK connection speeds, downloading recent game releases such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 actually takes longer than it would to fly from the UK to the game developer’s headquarters in California!
But my main sympathy doesn’t actually sit with the poor soul waiting over 12 hours for their download. It sits firmly with the tortured mother, brother or flatmate who’s trying to do what is now relatively ‘normal stuff’ online at the same time, i.e. working from home, video chatting with family overseas or streaming a movie.
Need or want? Should it make a difference?
What fascinates me most about the survey though, is how it highlights that not all people who live in UK homes define what they ‘need’ from connectivity in the same way. In many spheres of our lives, what we ‘need’, what we ‘want’ and what ‘puts a great big grin on our face’ are often very different things. I never ‘needed’ that Dragon 32, but it inspired me, it gave me skills and insight, and it definitely made me smile! How we relax in the evening or spend our precious downtime on the weekend is personal to each of us, and, as time progresses, connectivity is unarguably evolving and enriching many of these experiences.
Connected devices are already rife within our homes and even if we can’t predict exactly what our personal digital environments will look like in 20 years’ time, past experience tells us that technology won’t stand still. And, without gigabit-capable fibre connections ready to underpin those inevitable advances, woe betide any ‘regular’ user! Let alone one who finds themselves living with someone whose spare time is spent immersing themselves in the latest gaming experience.
Well-connected homes enable so much more…
Of course, it’s not just about being able to support the entertainment, communication and technology desires of home owners. Gigabit speed networks also have a vital role to play in supporting more basic human needs. Two such examples are digital health and social care and remote learning. Both are areas that local governments are now targeting as part of their smart city and digital agendas. As the technologies in these areas advance, the services deployed will become wholly dependent on ubiquitous high-speed fixed and wireless connectivity. And any remaining digital divide at a community level will hinder the efficiencies and cost savings that are driving their inception.
Investment in ubiquitous gigabit capable networks also radically simplifies and reduces the cost of connecting the small cells that will need to be delivered at density across whole cities in support of enhanced 4G mobile, 5G and smart city IoT. And with that, it comes full circle back to the individual again! Consider the enhanced mobile data use demands of you, I and countless others sat in our self-driving cars as we use the valuable downtime to catch up on work, communicate with family and even stream entertainment and news.
The motivation for broadband is simple
Our industry has a duty to serve all – from the smallest child with their first tablet device to the early adopters of tomorrow. If, as part of this, we fail to look to the future, then we don’t deserve that responsibility.
Committed gamers, the ever-increasing number of connectivity-dependent homeworkers, ‘garage innovators’ and home-based business owners are just a few examples at one end of the consumer spectrum. Yes, they are sub-segments of a large and diverse market sector. But, for as long as I’ve been in this industry, these segments have shone a light on the future; highlighting connectivity requirements that, over time, have become considered a human right by almost everyone else.
If we cut back to where we are today, it’s clear that investing in and building a digital infrastructure capable of serving everyone and everything in an area with gigabit speeds, is neither wasteful nor something to be questioned. We are way beyond that! It’s common sense, enabling for the future and truly exciting, especially to anyone who knows what a full-fibre connection is theoretically capable of delivering – right here, right now!
Our duty is to deliver choice
Comparatively speaking, low- and mid-speed services will always be available! For those who only need to do tomorrow’s equivalent of making phone calls, downloading e-books, paying bills or sending emails, service providers will still be able to provide entry level services over a modern high-speed network. But for many, the desire for those higher speeds is already here and for a large percentage of the rest, technology will drive them there in the blink of an eye.
Even if technology evolves slower than we anticipate, it’s no excuse not to ensure we have the infrastructure and services ready for the future. As an industry our job is to predict, prepare for and embrace the future, feed the hunger and leave no one behind.
Caroline Hughes is head of marketing – portfolio and engagement at CityFibre.