Networking

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: The state of broadband

As viewed from the trenches...
A frequent industry conference presenter and attendee, Peter Cochrane explains why the recent ABC broadband event exceeded his expectations and discusses what hopes the UK has to improve its place in the 'fat pipes' league.

I am not generally a fan of EU conferences as I find them turgid and lacking in novelty compared to events in the North America. But every now and again I encounter an exception. This year's Access to Broadband Campaign (ABC) conference, which took place earlier this month in Scotland, was one such event.

ABC, run by a group of enthusiasts, is devoted to canvassing for broadband access in the UK. I have presented at all of their conferences since 2001, and this one was by far the best. From the outset there was an energy in the 360 participants that I had not seen before. There was also a unique combination of techies, users, providers, visionaries and decision makers who seemed determined to effect change in the way the UK is not being supplied with any form of broadband infrastructure.

One of the presenters neatly coined the plight of the UK as follows: "In 1984 we had decided that broadband would be anything above 2Mbps but by 1995 we had decided that it's somewhere below 500Kbps."

Just before this statement, an industry spokesman said the UK was the leading broadband nation in the world. This was received by a stunned silence from an audience well aware that the UK is actually at the bottom of the league. How could anyone make such a statement when other nations in Scandinavia, South-East Asia and North America enjoy bit rates between 2Mbps and 100Mbps and are planning universal 10Gbps delivery by 2010? Moreover many of these countries do not dilute the bit delivery with multiple customers using the same stream to the point where you only get 56Kbps.

Well, I guess it is all down to government hype. The way you become the most connected broadband nation in the world is just to say that you are. In the UK is now seems standard practice to neglect reality and hide the truth as a matter of course. If the government can do it with education, heath care, road traffic stats and immigration, broadband is small beer.

So what can be done?

Wireless was mentioned as a means of bypassing the incumbent operators in the local loop to provide bandwidths in excess of 2Mbps. There were some incredible success stories of this technology out of Scotland and Wales, although many had ended up being stamped on or frustrated by the incumbents.

Satellite broadband also came up but I find it very difficult to imagine it has much of a role to play except in the remotest of locations. The cost is simply enormous and restrictions are placed on the amount of data downloaded in GB per month. I hate to think what my son would do to that in a week, let alone a month, but I suspect he would blow the limit without a second thought.

The short and long-haul wireless systems on offer looked promising. Most dramatic by its absence was WiMax - this seems almost to be a retreating technology as the specification process drags on and on.

It always seems paradoxical to me that for the last 30 years at least, the incumbents have been asking the same dumb question: 'What will people do with all this bandwidth?'

Several presenters offered answers. The Media Lab Europe showed a clutch of real-time services that would gobble up bandwidth, and another company demonstrated the creation of movies and multimedia content by young people using PCs at home.

Perhaps even more telling was the number of people using the Wi-Fi services at the conference to communicate using Skype and other voice over IP technologies for most of the day. As one user said: "I don't bother to ring my brother in Australia anymore. We just open up an audio channel and leave it running all day, 24x7. Why wouldn't you?"

One of the exhibits that really caught my attention was an IT bus produced by Glenrothes College. Not only was this clever in concept, it was also superb in realisation. It was a standard coach equipped with 10 PCs ergonomically mounted into glass-topped desks. To get online, a server connects to the internet via a satellite link wherever the bus happen to be located. I have to say it was one of the best mobile tech environments I have ever come across. Full marks to the team who put it together.

The parallel workshop sessions often went beyond present broadband debate to create snapshots of the future, and without exception broadband posed a telling limitation. Delegates nailed their colours to the mast with respect to the GDP of their regions. Simply put: if you can't communicate, you can't trade. If you don't have bandwidth, you don't have a business. If you don't have true broadband, you'll certainly become part of the second world.

Another feature of the conference was the high percentage of 'doers' attending. At EU conferences I am used to spectators who just listen or at best complain that someone else isn't doing anything, and then leave without making any positive contribution. Here, numerous attendees were working on deploying broadband wireless systems in Europe, Scandinavia and the Third World - and I sensed a willingness of some to emulate their success in isolated communities across the UK.

One bit of good news: commercial Wi-Fi operators in Europe - who charge high per-minute fees - are not making any money and look to be on the decline. Large portions of the UK already have an abundance of free Wi-Fi, especially in and around Greater London. And in the US, local governments of cities such as San Francisco and San Jose, California, have even decided to install free Wi-Fi to encourage business and commerce. I think they are onto a winner - and this is something that we will see accelerating across the UK.

I always feel I have been to a good conference when I leave uplifted and encouraged by the people, their attitudes, the presentations and the technology. ABC this year scored 10/10. If the conference energy could be converted into action, the UK might just become a well-connected country in the next 10 years or so.

Dictated at Robert Gordon's University Aberdeen. Despatched as an audio file to my PA from Aberdeen BA airport lounge by Wi-Fi. Received in typed form a day later at my home and polished over the following week. Despatched to silicon.com via Wi-Fi from my garden on a very cold day over a very warm coffee and whilst wearing a very warm coat.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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