Small Talk: We cannot afford to be limited by failing networks – and lose access to the future

The UK was the inventor of optical fibre and a world leader in fibre-to-the-home/premises/business and basement, but we are now at the back of the class

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Technology is like a ratchet. At every “click” it empowers individuals and companies large and small, and there is no going back. The world is changed, jobs and industries disappear and new ones are created, and we all achieve more with less. It is the stuff of creativity, productivity, change and advancement.

This has always been the case, but in the space of 50 years it has accelerated from the seemingly steady and under control to become a continuum of change, and we anticipate the next click with either excitement and/or trepidation.

The most recent “click” affecting business (and everyone) is the cloud, which is soon to be followed by the internet of things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence (AI). Each presents solutions to problems limiting our capabilities. For example; the internet cannot scale functionally, ecologically or economically to seven billion people and 50 billion things online, but clouds can. Without the IoT we will never achieve sustainable societies, and without big data we will never achieve big understanding. And because of our limited capacity to understand complexity and non-linearity, we will never solve the key problems before us without the assistance of AI.

In order to access and exploit these new tools we need connectivity and bandwidth, but what we are building in the name of mobile and broadband infrastructure falls far short of actual need. When we are sold “super fast” over copper wires it is actually “super slow” and asymmetric. 30Mbit/s down and 5Mbit/s up is not going to cut the mustard. And while politicians are duped by the providers using comparisons across the EU, the world leaders are racing ahead. When I am in Hong Kong my hotel room is served with 1Gbit/s (1,000,000Mbit/s) both ways, and cloud computing really works. The same is true when I am in many other progressive countries, and some extraordinary regions: farms in Lancashire and the island of Jersey, for example.

Sad to say the UK was the inventor of optical fibre and a world leader in fibre-to-the-home/premises/business and basement in 1992, but that was stopped by the government of the day, and we are now at the back of the class behind countries like Estonia.

The implications are profound. The UK used to be a world leader in the computer games and simulation business (worth billions) but we lost them to the Far East. New industries will be created and the UK precluded from participating due to our retarded network thinking and roll-out.

So, what is the UK planning to be? If atoms and bits cannot move we cannot trade and GDP cannot be created. We are sadly lacking in road, rail and airports, and focused on building networks for yesterday based on old copper technology. Will we become a world leader like this? I think not. Are we suffering, and will we continue to suffer economically in the future? Yes. Will our productivity climb the ranks of the other industrial nations? Sad to say it will not. Unless we engineer for the future we are looking at long-term stagnation.

So what can we do? If the network companies will not supply us, we have to go with DIY. And in this regard the countryside is starting to lead the charge. Farming is a hi-tech business and many small companies have decamped from the cities to the small towns and villages where community broadband schemes are alive and well, supported by a plethora of new fibre and wireless-based providers. Self-funding is the norm and success brings both satisfaction, relief and business success. Farmers and villagers in Lancashire are among the DIY leaders with 500 miles of installed fibre offering a 1Gbit/s standard rate and 10Gbit/s if you want to pay a premium. Others are more modest with wireless solutions offering 34-100Mbit/s.

For those thinking that 5G mobile is the big fix and wireless can do it all, I would ask them to consider the promise of 3G and 4G versus the reality. Increasing tower density by 10 times is impracticable but needed to approach the 5G promise. The reality is that micro cells on the end of optical fibre in as many homes and offices as possible is the only viable solution.

The community and DIY route is the norm in many countries and it looks like becoming that way for the UK too.

Peter Cochrane OBE, a former chief technology officer at BT, is co-founder of the consultancy Cochrane Associates. He was made professor for public understanding of science and technology at the University of Bristol in 1998. David Prosser is away.

Small Business Person of the Week: Olivia Martyn, Founder, Olive Cooper

"I set up Olive Cooper in September 2014, whilst on board a change-making programme called The New Entrepreneurs Foundation, and whilst working as a marketeer in the City.

Before that, I was a psychology student, and I had my own eBay business, which I ran since the age of 14 in my spare time, selling charity shop gems.

Realising my passion  for selling accessories, and my eye for detail, I decided to create my own handbags to sell.

I joined forces with family friend and retail entrepreneur Jeff Cooper, of Stirling Cooper fame, who agreed to join me on my journey. He invested in the brand to enable me to turn my ideas into reality.

After a lot of closed doors, we were led to a small handbag factory in north London, where I produced my first handbag. We spent the first few months getting this right.

With neither of us being designers, it took 10 to 15 failed attempts to reach our first bag.

Having won a small  cash prize for my business pitch on the New Entrepreneurs Foundation,  I then had the confidence to hand in my notice as a marketeer and develop the collection further.

Taking the product to market was our biggest challenge. The investment went into building the collection, so gaining customers had to start organically. I developed our website myself to be the primary avenue to sell, and gaining customers has been the result of good social media, engagement, honest communication and good PR.

Our online business is growing every month, and we are now working with further London factories, as well a factory in the West Country.

Although online is our focus, we are also in two brilliant London shops, and a department store in Bath, with our own retail outlet being the primary aim."

Interview by Alex Lawson