The high cost of broadband black holes
ISN’T IT ALWAYS the way - you wait for ages for a report into the state of the high-speed broadband telecoms market in Scotland, and then two arrive at once! The independent think tank, Reform Scotland, has recently issued its report, Digital Power, at about the same time as the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) published its interim report on the same subject. (Disclosure: I was a member of the team responsible for the RSE document.)
Both reports tell a similar tale. The take-up of broadband is lower in scotland than the rest of the UK, and is particularly poor in Glasgow where Ofcom reported in 2009 that only 39 per cent of the population was connected - around half of the proportion online in Aberdeen and Edinburgh.Throughout Scotland the provision of broadband is still patchy, with both Virgin and BT super-serving the major centres of population in the cities while those on the outskirts of towns and in rural areas languish on lower speeds.
In Scotland’s position, at the outer periphery of the European Union, communications are arguably more important than elsewhere. These days, business, health services, education, and government all depend on good telecom connections; access to modern entertainment, from multi-player games and itunes, to the BBC iPlayer, requires high-speed communications to work well.
In the 1990s, a significant government subsidy ensured that all of the telephone exchanges in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were upgraded to provide a digital service via ISDN - which at the time was state-of-the-art - and the region was seen to benefit economically from that initiative.
However, today, it is difficult to see where a similar level of vision is likely to come from - the new UK Government has already cancelled the proposed £6 per year levy on phone lines which was going to pay for broadband deployment, and the Scottish Government is facing massive cuts in its block grants which will limits its ability to intervene.
In the current fashion against ‘top-down’ government, it seems unlikely that the UK will set ambitious targets for provision similar to Sweden or Finland, which are pushing their telecoms providers to invest heavily in upgrading their networks.
So, how important is it really that decent, fast, communication is available to all, even in rural areas? Let me tell you a story... One of the most popular technology news sites in the world today is Mashable.com, which delivers 30 million page views a month.
Mashable is the leading site in the world commentating on web applications, mobile technology, and social networking phenomenons such as Facebook and twitter.
In February 2009 its annual revenues were estimated at $1.2m and will be at least four times that by now. The team working full-time for Mashable is now over 30, including around 20 journalists, and it also posts stories from dozens of guest writers.
It is 'followed' by over 2.7 million people on Facebook, Twitter or via RSS feeds making it one of the world's top ten blogs. it is clearly one of the most influential publishers in the world of new media, reporting stories daily from San Francisco, New York, London and Los Angeles, and running regular technology ‘events’ in cities like Seattle, Chicago and Boston.
Mashable is run by Pete Cashmore, who started it in 2005 as a then 19-year-old from the bedroom of his parents house in Banchory, 18 miles inland from Aberdeen. Cashmore now lives mostly in San Francisco.
I’m not sure what the definition of rural Scotland is, but I'm pretty sure Banchory qualifies.