Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Super-fast broadband for Cornwall

Cornwall’s digital geeks were celebrating last Thursday as Cornwall Council and BT officially announced the imminent rollout of ultra-fast fibre broadband across great swathes of the county and the Isles of Scilly.

The EU-funded project will make Cornwall one of the best-connected places in the world, outstripping London and other urban centres for broadband speed and availability. Maximum download speeds of between 40Mbps and 100Mbps will be available to 80-90% of premises in the county by 2014, with only the most remote locations missing out on the superfast broadband bonanza.

Half of all premises will have the option to have a fibre-optic cable installed directly into the building, making download speeds approaching 100Mbps a scarcely dreamed-of reality for some lucky Cornish homes and businesses by as early as next Spring, BT chief executive Ian Livingston told a room packed with journalists at Newquay’s Headland Hotel.

That's faster than anything currently available anywhere in the UK, putting Cornwall on a par with South Korea, the world’s most hyper-connected country.

Magnet for high-tech businesses

The rollout, which BT says is already underway, should turn the UK’s rural south-western tip into "a magnet for high-tech businesses," according to Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson. Not only will it provide the necessary infrastructure for media firms, digital content providers and other bandwidth-hungry companies to relocate to Cornwall, it will also provide a fertile environment for graduates of the Combined Universities in Cornwall’s digital media and animation courses to set up in business here.

Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson opens the press conference

And that economic transformation is the whole idea. The EU’s contribution of £80m – matched by a £54m investment by BT – is the biggest single allocation from its European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), a pot of money reserved for economic development projects in the poorest areas of Europe.

Cornwall, with an underperforming rural economy that trails the UK average by a wide margin, is the only county in England to qualify for these funds. This project is Cornwall’s biggest and most important attempt to claw its way out of the mire of low-value jobs in agriculture, retail and tourism and to create what Elizabeth Holt, head of communication and partnerships for the European Commission, described last week as a "fully innovative, knowledge-based, low-carbon economy."

An opportunity to "invent the future"

All the speakers at last week's event touted super-fast broadband as a critical investment for Cornwall, without which it could never overcome its problems of rurality and geographical peripherality. Nigel Ashcroft, director of NGA networks for Cornwall Council, said that with connection speeds that are almost unprecedented across the globe, Cornwall-based businesses will have a chance to "invent the future" by creating brand new applications and services that make full use of the bandwidth available.

An antidote to public sector job losses?

The rollout should give Cornwall a huge opportunity to create new, high-value jobs in high-tech, 21st century industries at a time when other areas of the UK are experiencing severe cutbacks in public investment in infrastructure and employment.

Cornwall Council and BT have estimated that 4,000 new jobs will be created and a further 2,000 existing jobs protected, perhaps offsetting the 2,000 public sector jobs that are due to be lost in the county as a result of the Coalition government’s spending cuts.

The world’s first rural digital cluster?

As an experiment in rural connectivity, super-fast broadband for Cornwall should provide a pioneering case study that other rural regions of the UK – and the world – are sure to study closely. It was telling that the audience at last week’s press conference included journalists from China, South Korea, Latin America and Germany alongside national news reporters from London and the local south-west media.

So could this mark the end of ‘digital clusters’ being the preserve of the world’s big cities? Could Cornwall soon boast the world’s first rural digital cluster? It’s tempting to think so, but for all its virtual connectivity, Cornwall will still remain physically remote from the world’s great urban intellectual nexuses.

That remoteness may remain a handicap when it comes to attracting big-hitters to visit the region in person. Will we see internet-era thinkers such as Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky or Cory Doctorow making the five-hour train journey from London to engage and inspire the local digerati? Will Truro join New York, San Francisco and London on the A-list lecture circuit? Can we look forward to hosting a TED conference in Penryn? It would be great to think so, but I won’t hold my breath just yet.

Remote communities to miss out

And what of those parts of the county that the fibre won’t reach? BT has promised to upgrade the county’s patchwork of ‘notspots’ using a mixture of satellite connections and copper-wire technologies such as ADSL+, but the speeds delivered will remain around 2Mbps; nothing like the service experienced in the rest of the county.

For Cornwall’s remotest farms and communities, it looks like the only super-fast option will remain the one heroically undertaken by Lancashire farmer and rural broadband campaigner Christine Conder – installing the fibre yourself.


Wo said...

Wo here.

Great article. This is such a trans formative technology for Cornwall that it would be good for someone to conceptualise it so people can imagine it. Right now it feels too abstract for a lot of people. It would be great to put together a community or leverage one already formed to put such a project together. Right now it's hard for a lot of people to understand what it actually means, day to day. We have got to be better at communiting it to the public.

Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Thanks Wo - yes, if you have any good examples of how the new network could be used in practice please let me know, as I'm about to start on a separate blog post for the Social Media Café blog about this.

chris said...

I am very happy that something is being done to help Cornwall, but very sad if it transpires that public money has been used by BT to implement their pathetic BET solution which bonds copper pairs to deliver a paltry meg or two. If this happens it means the rural areas of cornwall will be on copper for another few decades. There is only one bite at this cherry, I urge the people of Cornwall to stick out for fibre, and make BT deliver on their promises. I guess they covered it in the small print, which clearly said they weren't gonna do fibre... but good luck, and watch your backs.
ps thanks for the video link!

Cybersavvy UK said...

For examples of what this will mean for Cornwall, don't look to Chattanooga for a long time yet.

Paul Clark said...

The interesting thing is what applications people are going to use it for; just speeding up YouTube is nice but it's not going to have that much transformative effect (maybe even a negative one!).

Some of the applications that immediately spring to mind are:

1) Remote working: Direct access to terminal services / file shares / extranets. As someone who uses NFS and IMAP over ADSL to access our central fileserver most evenings and occasionally all day, this would be a major boon to the efficiency of home working.

2) Remote support: These kind of speeds (assuming they are symmetric) allow usable Remote Desktop / VNC connections which would vastly improve the quality of IT support that could be offered - there's a market opportunity for someone here!

3) File transfer: Creatives and people like us involved in content distribution will find it possible to transfer around our ever-growing media files in finite time.

4) Local TV and Video-on-demand services. This is the big one for us, because it's our speciality. These speeds would allow multiple full HD streams to be delivered. This won't happen by itself, though - it needs video service operators like MyCornwallTV to step up to use it.

You might note I've left out the old chestnut of video conferencing. Personally I don't like it, I find the video side gets in the way ("Can you see me OK?"). But I use voice conferencing practically every day - on fairly standard broadband - and it already works fine!

One important thing that needs shouting from the rooftops though: Headline speeds are not the only issue; there's also the question of where it connects to. I'm assuming that by default it will connect into BT's 21CN infrastructure; the issue then is whether there is the transit bandwidth to connect to (say) Sohonet at no extra charge.

For the video-on-demand example we would need direct Gigabit connections into the network without paying astronomical transit fees which would completely break the business case. There's definitely a case for breakout into a local datacentre here...

For local IPTV broadcast there's also the issue of multicast support. If that were done properly it would be feasible to create a real peer-to-peer TV network - produce your own TV channel!

But for me the great thing is we will be trying these things out a good time ahead of most other markets and if we play our cards right, Cornwall could become a genuine centre of expertise in high-bandwidth Internet applications (some might argue it already is ;-).


chris said...

Spot on Paul. Add to that the kids can download course work and upload it back to the school without having to rely on remembering the dongle. Through local network infrastructure it need never hit the internet and incur bandwidth issues. Added benefits for councils, hospitals, doctors surgeries, their transit could be kept local. The benefits in eHealth alone are enough to warrant a fibre connection. The future is nearly here, and the UK is not ready. I hope Cornwall isn't fobbed off with any copper rubbish, even fibre to the cabinet is only a stop gap solution. Get one member of the family into heavy usage and the rest of the family will suffer unless the connection is fit for purpose, and for that you need fibre. Fibre is cheaper to deploy than copper, and if BT are caught laying more copper to replace DACS on the lines in rural areas they need reporting right away, do it on twitter and shame the devil.
Keep rockin, you can keep us all informed of progress and the benefits it brings. If you can get fibre anywhere near a rural area then consider laying your own, as we did in the video, don't get suckered with BET and don't let your friends fall for it.

Paul Clark said...

Just watched the "JFDI" (lovely!) videos, too... Made me realise what a mammoth operation this is going to be out in the countryside!

But let's hope that BT do something a bit more permanent than digging the fibre direct into the ground with a mole plough, though... Otherwise next time that field is turned over it's glass spaghetti time!

(My home phone and broadband is dug into a field the same way; almost every year it gets broken when it's ploughed and every year BT send an engineer to join it up again - cheaper than doing it properly, apparently!)


Anonymous said...

From my work as a journalist, I know BT has a habit of doing massive press launches for products that never happen. So, I'll really believe it when you tell me you're using it!