By Steven McGinty
According to the Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP), an independent think tank, London’s poor broadband infrastructure will threaten the capital’s ability to compete with other global cities in the future.
David Brunnen, FISP member and an independent telecoms infrastructure expert, explains that although demand for broadband is growing rapidly, the capital still relies mostly on networks of copper wires, which Tech City have described as ‘not fit for purpose’.
The solution, the foundation advocates, is to create a new infrastructure agency, Digital for Londoners (DfL), to ensure that London becomes a ‘Gigabit City’ by 2020.
What are gigabit cities?
In simple terms, gigabit cites provide citizens, business and governments with access to gigabit internet services (1,000 megabits per second or higher). By replacing old copper cables for pure fibre infrastructure, cities can enable public services to take advantage of technology, support businesses to innovate, and improve the lives of citizens. As US President Barack Obama explains, ‘it’s like unleashing a tornado of innovation’.
In the UK, CityFibre, is the main provider of Gigabit Cities. Their network covers 40 cities, including Glasgow and Bristol, across major data centres and busy internet traffic points, and provides 260,000 businesses and 3.7 million homes with gigabit broadband.
On 22nd September 2016, Northampton became the latest UK gigabit city. In an agreement between CityFibre and dbfb, a Northampton-based business internet service provider, businesses will now receive internet speeds of up to 100 times faster than the UK’s average. Paul Griffiths, from Northamptonshire Chamber of Commerce, highlights that this investment will play an important role for start-up businesses competing globally.
The initiative will also help Northampton County Council achieve their target of making gigabit broadband available, countywide, by the end of 2017.
In 2010, Chattanooga, Tennessee, became one of the first cities to make gigabit connectivity widely available. Its mayor, Andy Berke, has described its introduction as a significant source of the city’s economic renewal.
Gigabit broadband has allowed a tech industry to emerge from a city more commonly associated with heavy manufacturing. Tech companies and investment have been drawn by the ‘The Gig’ – the local name for the network – resulting in the conversion of former factory buildings into flats, open-space offices, restaurants and shops. In the past three years, the city’s unemployment rate has dropped from 7.8% to 4.1%. The mayor has also linked the city’s wage growth to jobs in the technology sector.
‘The Gig’ was funded by a combination of public and private investment. EPB, the city-owned utility company, borrowed $219 million and received a $111 million grant from the US Government. This government-led approach has given Chattanooga broadband speeds greater than Google Fibre, a major gigabit broadband provider. Wired magazine suggests that government involvement raises expectations, and encourages commercial providers to improve their infrastructure.
The Stockholm city government have one of the oldest gigabit strategies, founding the private company, Stokab, to deploy and manage their city-wide fibre network in 1994. Stokab was created to help the city benefit from the new digital era by limiting multiple network deployments, and by stimulating the technology sector. The end-to-end fibre broadband network serves 700 service provider businesses and connects 90% of residential premises.
The gigabit network has provided a wide variety of economic benefits, including:
- becoming a catalyst for the technology sector (The Kista Science Park has over 1000 technology businesses, with 24,000 employees)
- creating growth and jobs valued at €900 million
- providing low cost broadband services to business – through increased competition – has resulted in an estimated €8.5 million worth of savings
- increasing housing values by €200 million and rental values by €3.5 million per year
Although gigabit broadband could create limitless opportunities, it also has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities. Citizens, and even small businesses, could lose out if they don’t have the skills or technologies to access the internet.
Salford Council realises the important role technology plays in creating vibrant communities. As part of their rollout of gigabit broadband services across social housing, the council are introducing a digital skills campaign to encourage more residents online. Volunteers are being recruited to assist neighbours who are less digitally savvy. As encouragement, they are being offered a free IPad and a free broadband service, if they train more than 20 people a year.
To compete globally, cities will be looking to introduce gigabit broadband infrastructure. London, as a global technology hub and a key driver for growth across the UK, will need to invest in order to support businesses and meet the expectations of citizens. Government may have to provide greater leadership in order to incentivise private sector involvement. Equally, digital exclusion will need to be tackled, to ensure that everyone can participate in the information society.