Sometimes you need to pinch yourself to remember you aren’t dreaming. Just over a generation ago this would have been written on a typewriter – probably manual – and hand delivered to someone who had the job of organising the printing. In 30 years our communications have been utterly revolutionised.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of the speed of that astonishing transformation, because that information revolution has also re-defined the categories of winners and losers in our society. The winners now are those who can access reliable, swift, affordable means of communication; the losers can’t. It may be banal, but I remain mesmerised at how technological change brings rapid social disruption – be it a spinning Jenny or the Internet.
The losers in the latest technological revolution – in the UK at least – are those living in far-flung parts of the country, in rural communities where there is little or no chance of getting high-speed broadband in the foreseeable future. Last week Ofcom, the UK’s communications’ regulator, said that than 1.4 million homes across Britain still cannot receive a broadband connection offering speeds of 10 Mbps (megabits per second), which it said is “unacceptable”. Moderate Internet use – busy online use most days – needs around double that speed. At 10 Mbps it’s difficult to play even short videos.
Having slow or no broadband doesn’t equate to having an empty stomach or no roof over your head – but if parts of the country do not have the same telecommunications opportunities that the rest does, then that will lead to a divided society, and economic disequilibrium on too many ways to count.
For anyone interested in tracing the tangled knots of our telecoms provision in the UK, there was an inadvertently hilarious debate in the House of Commons in March 2016 in which the MPs of various rural constituencies regaled their fellows with stories about – you guessed it – BT and its numerous failings when it comes to providing rural broadband at speeds above snail-mail, or at all.
One of the Social Stock Exchange’s latest members, Broadway Partners, is stepping in where BT can’t or won’t invest in delivering high-speed broadband to remote areas. Laying copper or fibre cables over long distances is, naturally, pricey. But why lay them at all? There are alternatives ready to hand so long as you think creatively and are not tied to a 20th century business model.
We spoke to Michael Armitage, Broadway’s CEO, to find out what the company does. Essentially, it has a 21st century solution to a problem that didn’t even exist 30 years ago.
“It all started when I was on holiday in Devon and found I had rubbish Internet connection. Wondering why it was that the largest player couldn’t provide decent broadband, I realised there was a wide gaping hole, an opportunity, and I started on a mission to find ways to improve the provision of broadband to rural communities,” says Armitage.
Armitage was well-placed to think creatively about connecting people through telecommunications, having spent 15 years leading Morgan Stanley’s European telecoms research, and having led numerous privatisations in the sector. “BT has done all the easy stuff,” says Armitage (himself a former BT graduate trainee); “it’s done all the urban areas, all the dense populations. What we are targeting is the final 10%, those who don’t have broadband.”
Broadway is using some extremely whizzy technology to bring communities into the digital age, including “white space”, the shorthand way of referring to unused gaps in the radio spectrum all around us. For a comprehensive overview of what is radio white space, check out – what else? – this Wikipedia page.
If its whizzy technology was all there was, then Broadway Partners would be an interesting firm; what makes it impressive is that it’s pioneering public/private partnerships, with local and national government, with housing associations and local communities, to meet a real social need. “There’s a lot of anger out there in the shires,” says Armitage – anger at a sense of being left behind or overlooked, of being locked in a 20thcentury world while the rest of us live a 21st century life.
He points to a flagship project of Broadway’s, the provision of wireless broadband (through utilising TV white space) to the Isle of Arran, in Scotland. “The lack of broadband in these communities is sucking the life out of them. We have a strong digital literacy ethos at Broadway because it’s a very tangible need”, he adds. High speed broadband access was, even a year or so ago, widely seen as luxury, but no longer. Take Arran, for example, a popular tourist destination, when the normal population of around 5,000 expands to 25,000 in peak summer months. Holidaymakers – and holiday-givers – want to access the world via the Internet as much as anyone else, both for social as well as economic reasons. Thanks to Broadway and its partners, now more and more of them can.
The Luddites did their best to smash all the spinning Jennies when they appeared. Fortunately we are more willing to embrace technological innovation. But although the obstacles to change may no longer be directly violent, they are perhaps indirectly more menacing; the failure to appreciate that lack of high-speed broadband is no longer a drawback being the most insidious.
Broadway Partners is a perfect example of a fledgling 21st century company, spotting a problem, providing a workable solution, assisting society to empower the neglected and overlooked. And, critically, for a Social Stock Exchange member, it’s deservedly growing.
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