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.