Connectivity is partly what’s holding us back

Dido Harding, CEO of TalkTalk wrote a piece in the Telegraph recently that said, “To become a world leader in broadband, we must prioritise competition as much, if not more so, than infrastructure.”

Surely he’s mistaken in thinking anyone believes these factors are isolated? It’s obvious that infrastructure without business, consumers, government and charities adopting the technology won’t see us win – or even keep up with others around the globe. His position is understandably that of protecting the underdog and no one outside of the oligopoly wants less competition, but doesn’t a better, wider, deeper infrastructure invite greater competition, not less?

The evidence says that the UK is an internet enthusiast and given more of it, we’d use it more in anger and be even further down the road of using it to our advantage. Harding said, the internet economy accounts for over 8pc of UK GDP — higher than in any other G20 country.

There can’t be any doubt it’s a far bigger deal in the UK than for many of our peers, as UK adults spend more online and own the most devices out of any EU5 country. 59% of respondents to a recent study said they’d shopped online at Amazon! If that isn’t penetration, what is?

The platform (and that retailer) are pretty ubiquitous in the UK despite around 20% of rural homes not getting broadband of 2mbps – much less and you can forget BBC iPlayer.

Cornwall is one county that have changed their own destiny with £132m project co-funded by the EU, BT and Cornwall Council, by rolling out superfast broadband across the county by 2014. Laying fibre-optic cable to exchanges that serve 250,000 households will produce speeds of 25mbps in some cases, and give Cornwall the title of fastest rural broadband in Europe.

The Government believes market demand will pay for upgrading urban networks and £500m in funding will provide for those less lucrative ‘not spots’. Given we can only claim the 16th fastest download speed in Europe, and 21st in the world there’s plenty of upgrading to be done.

Apart from bragging rights when at a Davos convention, what’s the upside to faster broadband?

Well, the modern and vastly expensive education system is broken. Online learning might not yet be commonplace but it’s far from bleeding edge, with the likes of the Massive Open Online Course which has 160,000 students simultaneously taking part in the same online class. The replication and repetition of the world’s classrooms is hugely inefficient and the internet holds the answer. If great names like Nolan Bushnell, Sal Khan and Anant Agarwal are starting to move the needle then you know this won’t remain a fringe activity.

Then there’s the obvious one: commerce. Again, Harding said, “Only around a third of small and medium sized businesses in the UK have transactional websites, yet the ones that do are growing four times faster than their non-digital counterparts.” This is a no-brainer for 99% of those two thirds of SMEs. Even if you’re a one man band who thinks they can’t afford to get a site up, then Google will do it for free. The roaming hairdresser and the cake maker should have their own sites, as Facebook doesn’t offer enough personality or ownership.

I agree with Mr Harding that competition is crucial and a BT monopoly won’t be the best outcome for any of us, but Mr and Mrs Joe Bloggs aren’t complaining about a lack of competition, whereas they’d love more connectivity (Wi-Fi on the run, folks?) and ever more speed. The latter is arguably restricting us more than the former.

[Hat tip to Jemima Kiss of The Guardian for sparking this post.]

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