The UK has some terrible broadband infrastructure and it’s down to BT’s Network. Even after the billions invested (of taxpayers money) and the roll out of BT’s “fibre optic broadband” in many areas, we have still not addressed the core issue of why it is slow and poor value for money, in the first place.
For simplicity, there are two part of the network “fibre to cabinet” (called FTTC), which runs via fibre from the telephone exchange to street cabinets; and then there is the copper from the cabinet to your house’, which is exactly where the problem starts. This means data travels rapidly to your street, before then crawling to your house, effectively slowed down by the old oxidised copper cable, that, in some areas was installed just after World War 2!.
Some were convinced that we had fibre broadband because that is what BT sold us, except, it wasn’t. It really just meant that they replaced the copper cable from the telephone exchange to your green cabinet in the street, which does speed it up of course, but can you really call it fibre broadband if it does not actually come into your house as fibre? If I promise to replace the nasty old lead water pipe feeding your house but only change half of it, would you be happy when I tell you your water main is lead-free now?
Telecoms companies like BT build and run large fibre networks which they then sell customers access to, but they control access and speeds to their advantage.
If the fibre market was functioning healthily, businesses and households would have an array of different fibre providers to choose from and it would be a buyers market. But they don’t. Across much of the country, there is only one provider, BT Openreach, subsidised by the Government to the tune of £1.6bn. Even the majority of cities have at most two competing providers, with decent broadband speeds reserved for those right next to the exchange or street cabinet.
Fibre networks for cities like Liverpool are important and will only become more important as time goes on. The emerging high growth industries that generate high value jobs and rejuvenate areas are attracted by fast broadband speeds. Companies that process huge data-sets need fibre to access and simultaneous process data on the cloud. The highly productive, skilled and technologically advanced companies that all cities want, crave this speed, and those cities that don’t provide this critical infrastructure, simply won’t attract those type of companies.
Traditionally, we’ve always survived with the current incumbents, who supply a low grade product with a high price tag delivered on old battered infrastructure, ultimately crippling bandwidth hungry businesses before they even get off the ground.
What Liverpool now needs is leadership on connectivity. The city could co-fund the creation of our own dark fibre networks. These new networks could be built as “fibre to every premises”, with fast networks racing straight to business premises, connecting every single one of them with a minimum of 1GB while large businesses can have 10GB or even 100GB.
And most excitingly, space on the dark fibre networks could then be leased to any retail broadband provider for a reduced rate, which would take the heat out of the large capital investments that broadband companies normally would have to make, while the various networks could all converge at a central place (being the Liverpool Internet Exchange Point), exchanging traffic with each other by keeping local traffic local to keep costs down but quality high, therefore enabling a better value product for the end customer.
The result would be fast, more reliable internet for businesses and citizens, while providing low latency connectivity that helps Games Companies, Pharmaceutical companies, Universities and Content Providers here in the city.
Because the city would own the infrastructure, they would have direct control over network speed and future investment and would create valuable revenue-earning assets that could directly not only create much needed cash for the cities our public accounts but indirectly as larger businesses move into the city to access an untapped workforce, creating and retaining jobs and paying additional business rates for the local economy.
Liverpool could be one of the best connected cities outside London, and could even be a challenger to other Northern cities while complimenting the overall strategic agenda of the Northern Powerhouse if we really let it.
Let’s hope that our city leaders seize this opportunity and embrace the technological change that is affecting us all, helping to enrich civic society while creating wealth for many generations to come, bringing super fast low latency and high quality internet to the doorsteps of businesses and citizens while turbo charging the creation of much needed jobs for our people.
Prof. Matt Wilson
IX Liverpool Limited