The need for a better national broadband strategy

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How many times a day do you use the Internet? Just think about it. I use the internet more than I use running water and for more hours than I use artificial light. To say that the Internet was important to me would be an understatement. Without the Internet I couldn’t do my day job. I couldn’t order my groceries (imagine having to actually go into a Tesco!), to be honest I would be lost. I’m sure I could cope, but why should I?

This weekend marks some momentous celebration of something or other that happened a long time ago. So long ago that it means nothing to people of my generation, yet it’s important to some of our politicians and that means that all of our politicians jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately for you and I that means the mainstream media consider it important. If I was interested I could follow the entire day on Twitter and get real time updates from real people, not some politician or media outlet.

My point is that the Internet provides access to this information whether I want it or not. The Internet is many things to many people, but at it’s most basic concept it connects all of us to each other and this is vital for a democracy to thrive.

Even I wouldn’t dare to question the turbulent past of this tiny country and I like most people am grateful that we are moving slowly forward. So, it was with great interest that I read this:

“DETI is considering those homes and businesses in Northern Ireland, particularly those in rural areas, where the choice of broadband provision is limited and/or the available speeds are less than 2 Mbps.”

DETI have even gone as far as providing a map “of those postcode areas where the provision of 2 Mbps services is limited to one or two suppliers and are indicated by the light blue areas.”

I’ll spare you the trouble of clicking the link. To my eyes it looks like about 50% of NI.

According to the BBC, broadband is great here. The DETI Minister states “that Northern Ireland is the best connected region in the United Kingdom“. While this is indeed true, does that make it right?

If you ask anyone what are the challenges that we as a country face, everyone will (or should) state the economy as being the most important. So in the 21st century you build a 21st century economy. We need Project Kelvin, but we need much more. Places like Omagh Enterprise, which offer internet connection speeds of between 10Mbps to 10Gbps are all too rare.

In a connected world, what does ‘local’ really mean? Northern Ireland is already home to international companies like All State NI who work with colleagues in the States on a daily basis. Geography and time have been overcome.

Belfast City Council recently announced that “Belfast is one of 10 UK cities to successfully bid for funding to become a Super-connected City by 2015.”

This is good news. But I think we in Northern Ireland suffer from a lack of vision and ambition.

Outside of the British Isles the world has moved on. With an economic challenge facing every country, what are they doing? Simply, the smart cities are learning to compete and they are encouraging their citizens to innovate and to be entrepreneurial.

What’s the competition?

In Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO you can now get Google fiber. I’ll not trouble you with the details, but “Up to one gigabit upload & download speed” says it all. Upload speeds are vital for creative industries and any business that wants to send mass data.
In comparison DETI and the UK government are setting the bar with “a broadband service with a speed of at least 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) by 2015 and to provide superfast broadband to at least 90% of premises with speeds in excess of 24 Mbps.”
So, we in Northern Ireland can expect superfast broadband that is 40 times slower than what is currently available to residents in Kansas city.

It’s obviously not a fair comparison, after all Google is a private company and doesn’t have the needs of a nation to worry about. Except for one minor detail: Google needs people to use the Internet. If you and I didn’t make that google search they don’t get paid. So, they have invested heavily in providing their own broadband network and one that they have determined is fit and proper today. Not in 3 years time. TODAY.

Chicago is undergoing a similar broadband revolution to Belfast and with it they are expecting to create 2,000 jobs. It is clear to everyone that providing the infrastructure will lead to job creation and boost the economy. Arlene Foster states that through the next generation broadband project “Northern Ireland can reap the benefits of a dynamic and innovative economy”.

I’d like to challenge that statement. Our targets are too low. My co-host on The Tech Show Matt Johnston refers to these targets as from circa 2008 and he has written an interesting article about this very subject which I’d encourage you to read.

With the news that our public transport provider, Translink will make wifi available on its buses and trains we are surely approaching a competitive advantage. But again this misses the point.
Our need is not for wifi on public buses, but for better mobile coverage. 3G should be and will be faster than the wifi that comes on your bus. EE will (barring further legal challenges) launch 4G in Belfast during October. This should offer better mobile signal penetration. However, 3G coverage within Belfast is already pretty good, it’s the rural regions (or as I like to say everywhere outside of Belfast) that needs a complete backhaul upgrade so that we can actually use our fancy smartphones when we are out and about.

While the UK bickers over 4G, the USA have 75% of the population covered by 4G. TeliaSonera launched its 4G network in 2009 and Vodafone launched its 4G LTE network in Germany in December 2010.
In Estonia Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, and has been for a decade. They have a population of 1.4 million. They made Skype. Anyone care to offer a Northern Ireland firm that has 250 million monthly users and was acquired in a multi billion dollar deal? OK, so that’s probably a fluke (and an overvaluation) but could skype have been developed without the infrastructure Estonia put in place?

So, where does this leave us?
If Northern Ireland is to continue its growth in the creative industries, we need a better broadband initiative. Quite simply demand is greater than supply and that will suffocate innovation.

Please consider responding to the DETI consultation but if you do nothing else, consider what you could achieve with a better national broadband strategy.

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About Author

Hi, I'm Chris Taylor and I'm a web publisher from Belfast, Northern Ireland. You can follow me on twitter @iChrisTaylor or visit my website iChrisTaylor.com

1 Comment

  1. We are appreciative of Chris Taylor’s informed comparative study of what is going on in the communications world when set side by side with our experience in Northern Ireland. We are being sold a pup by those in authority about our ‘best connected’ communications system. The facts speak for themselves. People are having to climb walls and trees in parts of Northern Ireland in an attempt to reach the outer world on the ‘net.’ If you are not accessed the ‘secret’ code in Parliament Buildings you have to contend with a gale force wind to communicative with the outer world. A photographer was telling me the other day how difficult it is ‘to shift’ photographs from Stormont

    Taylor underscores what has happened in Estonia, what is happening in cities across the United States where they are light years ahead of us. He points out our goals in this infrastructure are far too modest if we are to connect with the world and secure cutting edge industry in Northern Ireland. In Belfast city centre I struggle with Wi-fi. We were told 3G would by our saviour. Not so in Northern Ireland. 4G and more are already starting to age elsewhere: Why will those with responsibility for communications not ask the appropriate questions about the true state of communications here? Any cursory glance at contributions from the few public representatives using social media to stay in touch with their constituents speak for itself. These people have not a clue about the ‘gift’ potentially in their political arsenal. Obama won his first election on Twitter and may win a second one too with Twitter and Facebook at its heart.

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