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Politicians are fond of grand gestures and the plans to create 14 ‘super-connected’ cities in the UK with networks that will run at up to 100Mbps could easily be seen as just another arrangement of fine words that, in the end, will have little in the way of substance. Following the recent debates over the need for superfast broadband in the UK, do we really need to focus on making connectivity in a handful of selected urban areas especially good? Or could this investment be better spent elsewhere?

Steve Lalonde, Chief Technical Officer

Steve Lalonde, Chief Technical Officer

It is all too easy to be cynical about such schemes of course, especially when the £530m set aside to help bring superfast broadband to the more remote areas of the UK has yet to be properly exploited, even though the four pilot areas were announced as long ago as autumn 2010. According to the BBC none of these areas have yet spent any money or even chosen a supplier for the proposed network.

However, from a positive perspective, at least the government is trying to make something happen. Without schemes like this, the UK is likely to slip behind many other countries in terms of the broadband access speeds on offer. But will that actually matter a great deal? What exactly are businesses going to do with super-fast broadband access?

While there are plenty of communications providers (ourselves included) suggesting ways to apply superfast broadband, there’s not an overwhelming amount of evidence of businesses asking the question.
Will superfast broadband simply mean that companies currently in leased line contracts in those cities will be able to give them up and save money? On the surface, that would look like bad news for communications providers and their resellers who generate a healthy income from Ethernet. In reality, superfast broadband will be unable to deliver the guarantees and un-contended service that a leased line can provide, making it a potentially unsuitable replacement for most business customers reliant on their business critical connectivity.

Do businesses need superfast broadband so that they can adopt IP-based voice? Whilst faster connectivity will undoubtedly help support VoIP connections, many businesses are already successfully utilising current broadband services for VoIP, so this alone isn’t enough to warrant the investment in super-connected cities.

Will it mean that more businesses can adopt video over the network and video conferencing? Again, yes, but this is still perfectly feasible for many companies already using broadband. What about unified comms and cloud computing? Again, the same answer applies. Increased speeds will definitely help, but again, such services can already be delivered using existing connectivity.

Businesses interested in using cloud solutions meanwhile, will undoubtedly be willing to invest in a more secure, guaranteed and dedicated Ethernet connectivity solution rather than rely on a standard, albeit superfast, broadband service.

What about video and audio streaming then? According to Ofcom, this is where the real demand for superfast broadband lies. Ofcom chief Ed Richards recently warned that superfast broadband uptake was slow and the only demographic showing any significant interest in it are families with teenagers who fight for bandwidth within the household. If this is true then you could argue that video and audio streaming is the most likely activity to require superfast broadband in these ‘super-connected’ cities, but is that really what the government had in mind for their extra £100m investment? I very much doubt it.

When announcing the plan, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Transforming communities into super-connected cities will enable them to compete with the world’s top digital cities. It will help them attract new jobs and new investment and make the UK a place where digital businesses look to come.” I don’t think he is aiming this at residential households with teenagers fighting over bandwidth somehow.

Before you think we’ve lost the plot in questioning the need for super-fast cities, let me explain. The real objective behind this is to boost the economy by providing key cities with an enviable infrastructure in the hope of attracting new businesses, generating more income and creating more jobs. While it’s a step forward, investment into 100Mbps superfast broadband isn’t enough. The chances of it encouraging businesses to scrap their existing Ethernet and leased line services are low. Nor will uptake of VoIP and cloud services kick-start demand to a sufficient degree – especially when businesses can easily support these applications with their existing connections.

To really compete effectively, UK businesses need a connectivity platform that gives them the capacity to do all of these things at the same time. Superfast cities can be a good thing, but the key to their success lies in businesses’ individual requirements. 100Mbps broadband is suitable for many businesses but, in our experience, many others are only truly confident when they have a dedicated connection in place with a Service Level Agreement. We think Ofcom’s comments that uptake of superfast broadband has been slow is premature and based solely on the residential market. Whilst residential customers may find it hard to justify the additional expenditure for superfast broadband services, business users are already demanding faster connections to support a multiple applications and requirements. We have seen strong demand for our FTTC services, since they were launched in September. Whilst it’s true that VoIP and cloud services can be supported by existing connections, the extra bandwidth and speed fibre offers, gives businesses more confidence to adopt new services.

However, some might well argue that the UK’s cities already have access to decent broadband speeds, while more rural areas are still struggling with sub-2Mbps connections. While efforts to change that are being made, progress is slow and investing in cities could potentially widen the digital divide. There may be some advantages in driving broadband development in major urban areas, but we would argue that the whole of the UK needs to be ‘super-connected’ – not just a handful of cities.

Have your say!
Do you think ‘super-connected’ cities will help to boost the UK economy? Or do you think they will simply widen the digital divide further and that this extra £100m investment should be focused towards rural communities? What are your experiences in terms of demand for superfast broadband? Let us know your thoughts by leaving us a comment below.

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