A few hundred years ago, a Scotsman invented a steam engine, and started the industrial revolution. All of a sudden a largely agricultural-based Europe was transformed into a manufacturing base. This precipitated a huge migration from the countryside to the cities - cities being engines that allow specialisation and economies of scale to work. A few hundred years later, we inherit a largely crowded (in Europe) cityscape, with a huge degree of specialisation, but all hooked up to the Internet.
So far, so very very predictable. Now, the fun starts. I work for a very forward-thinking client - the client-who-shall-not-be-named - and they allow - indeed encourage - home working via the internet. This is very cool - one or two days a week I get to sit at my desk in my undershreddies, still able to do fantastic work via incredibly secure vpn.
Now, the internet provision companies - and in the UK this is largely British Telecom and the cable companies - own the 'last mile'. The bit between the phone exchange and the house. Now, in cities, an apartment might only be a few hundred yards from an exchange and so someone might get 8mb ADSL provision here in the UK from BT, or 22mb ADSL2 provision from another provider. Warren, for instance, gets 22mb actual internet speed. I get - at the end of 3.5 miles of 110 year old telegraph poles - 2.5mb. Indeed I'm only getting as fast as 2.5mb because they found a piece of cable 60 years old attached to my house, and replaced it. A piece of cable installed around the time ww2 ended. Scary, eh ?
Therein lies the problem. In order to get distance-agnostic connection speeds for all, you have to run fibre connections which is expensive. So we compromise using 10+ year old ADSL technology. But even affluent (and this village is affluent - I sat in an Austin Martin Vantage at the weekend) places like this get crap broadband speed. Certainly not fast enough for HD TV provision.
And the UK isn't even LARGE. Hell, Texas has probably more square miles of territory than the UK, and has about the same amount of people. But the majority of those people live in urban areas. If your non-urban, then its satellite (slow + huge latency) for you.
Why not run fibre to every house ? Well, BT claim its hugely expensive. And it probably is. Replacing every non-urban phone line will be. However, they have an obligation under their license to offer telephone service to every household in the UK. They are not yet required under their license to provide 'reasonable' broadband service to every household. (Reasonable in my book is something capable of streaming HD TV - say 3mb)
The story is not good even in terms of city-based usage. Whereas here in the sticks, you can have ADSL and like it, in the city you have the choice of multiple carriers, cable companies and so forth. However, as a colleague at work found out, this still relies in a man in a white van actually turning up and sprinkling holy water on the connection to enable it. This might take a few days (in my Daughters case with Virgin in Dundee), or a few weeks. This sucks. No minimum-connection time. No Service Level Agreement
Thats the fixed line stuff. The mobile stuff is even worse. My (affluent) area of rural Scotland has reasonable mobile (2g) voice coverage. My mobile phone works in my house. There's not a hope in hell that our local cell tower will be switched to 3g in my lifetime. Despite the mobile carriers seeing data and 3g as their only profitable service, the sheer cost of upgrading base stations crippled the roll-out. Even at the office in London I work at - which is *very* central London - we regularly lose the 3g service. (Thanks O2, you bunch of muppets).
In the US, the situation is so bad - because the USA is geographically *huge* - that you can install your own micro-cell. A wee box pretending to be a cellphone tower, which plugs into your internet. Hang on. You pay for cellphone usage, you pay for your own tower and you pay for your own internet access to your own tower ? Eh ? And as foolish as this sounds, folks do it as its better than having no cell at all.
Isn't this appalling? Are we to believe that our information based economy should continue with such shocking levels of service? If your government believes that an information based economy should be open to all (despite location), surely levels of service should be increased to:
- Guarantee a minimum connection time, speed, cost
- A minimum data connection speed, regardless where you stay
- The prevention of cable companies (such as Virgin) cherry picking the affluent areas and ignoring everywhere else
This almost sounds like there should be a common infrastructure - perhaps cable, perhaps copper - and you should be able to pick the services and companies you wish to purchase those services from.
If you look carefully, this is what the politicians are claiming is in place. This is what we should be pushing for.
What's the alternative ? The alternative is that we all end up moving back to the cities again. From a government point of view, this would require massive infrastructure upgrades, housebuilding and so forth. Surely its far far cheaper to invest in a digital infrastructure, and rely less on physical transport mediums for our daily commutes ?