8 March, 2013 - 16:33 By Tony Quested

Digging in for a hi-tech harvest

It’s hard to shed the impression that major corporations are actually holding back the tide of technology advance like latter-day commercial Canutes.

Delivery of mega-fast broadband is a case in point. Cambridgeshire is rightly celebrating a £45 million deal with BT to deliver super broadband to homes and businesses throughout the county by 2015.

But even at times of apparent triumph it is important to analyse the detail if only to inform future decisions.

So while applauding householders and business leaders in Cambridge and Peterborough for securing the breakthrough we have to act the spectre at the feast.

The fact is that the price is a bonanza for BT and hugely inflated for the customer. This level of broadband, according to telecoms specialists I have quizzed, could have been delivered for half the price.

Millions of pounds have been wasted, partly because of the maladroitness of most procurement processes and partly because the odds are always stacked in favour of the provider and against the end user in going down this particular route.

The other pity is that it takes such an outpouring from such a large proportion of the general public to get providers to put in place services that should come as standard in any economy with pretensions to world class. For a technology cluster such as Cambridge – and it is not alone in the UK – it is shameful that such provision is not de rigeur.

But logic demands we dig deeper – literally – to put this broadband ‘coup for Cambridgeshire’ in proper perspective.

Provision of super-fast broadband to most rural communities is poor. Almost Third World. Companies try to lure the best staff in the face of intense global competition with promises of quality lifestyle, often out of town.

Unlike Yahoo, most progressive employers offer a work-life balance by allowing staff to operate from home at certain times. With the broadband speeds Britain struggles against it is well nigh impossible to deliver on this lifestyle promise while being efficient.

In stark contrast, people in rural communities in Lancashire have cut costs, accelerated creation of the infrastructure and guaranteed really fast broadband speeds by taking a DIY approach.

A company was formed to raise funds from the sale of shares and to own and operate the network. Most of the trenches were dug by local volunteers, who were rewarded with connection for their families or businesses or shares in the enterprise. Farmers and other landowners allowed free access for buried cables to cross their land. It costs £30 a month to have your home hooked up.

And here’s the thing: Tests on the network last month showed an upload speed of over 917Mbit/s and download speed of 530Mbit/s. Ofcom cites a national average upload speed of 12.7Mbit/s.

I am reliably informed that around 95 per cent of the cost in broadband provision is the digging of trenches, with the cable costing relative peanuts.

So, perhaps as a nation, we would be better digging in if we want to reap a hi-tech harvest. There are clearly times when inspiration and perspiration combined can be a powerful delivery mechanism.

Following the Lancashire blueprint would bring faster broadband quicker and more cheaply – and perhaps persuade corporations such as BT that their own pricing and delivery models are no longer justifiable or sustainable.

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