Retailing Rural Broadband

I was struck this morning by a piece on Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme this morning (check it out around 8.10) about broadband – because it was very pertinent to problems in rural areas and it was for once about the place I actually live. It highlighted the problem that a lot of the infrastructure obviously passes through rural areas – think about the cable. For the past 10 years the cable has run through the field in front our house but we have had no access to it. I only discovered the presence of superfast broadband in our town by asking the guys who were digging to get to the cable 6 months ago. This is a town of 10,000 people not the villages in the report today, so the question is of what is meant by ‘remote’. In this context remote is being created by the strange market mechanisms that are being used to roll out broadband into rural areas. So the tri-border area of Somerset/Devon/Dorset is not remote by car, or even by train, or by telephone or post/courier services. Tens of thousands of people are holidaying here right now, but it is remote for broadband.

A great deal of attention is focused on the infrastructure but less on the retailing of the service once it is present, and this a key aspect of people actually benefiting from the technology. The only way that the giants that dominate the actual retailing to households of can make money is to sell you services in your home through premium products and that largely means sports TV. Given the combination of live/work households in rural areas, where businesses are based in people’s homes this is another brake. I’ve been mapping my connectivity and it peaks in the morning, then ebbs during the course of the day as my current provider strangles it to allow people to stream to their TVs in the evening. At times I get better speeds from my mobile phone. To get access to the best services I’m getting a TV package (and my current provider is toast at the end of the this contract – if not sooner).

Frequently in this discussion people have pointed to broadband being the 21st Century equivalent of the roads or railways or canals, and that by implication our Victorian forebears would have been more efficient at rolling it out. Actually they weren’t, the field I mentioned earlier is where the railways used to run, and it links to the station built on the remains of the canal system they shut down. They ran a system that was wasteful in replication and aggressive competition as it lacked the hand of the state to help plan it. Rather than harking back to a mythical past we should start to view access to high speed broadband as a basic right in our society, akin to food, clean water, sewerage, shelter and electricity. Without it you increasingly experience a form of social exclusion. I would be amongst the first to point out that an increasing number of people in our society have a precarious and unequal access to those basics, but that is not a reason to deny them new services but rather to look at how a market dominated by giant businesses functions.

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