Next generation access is the key to poor web coverage

The UK’s ICT infrastructure is better than much of the rest of the continent’s, but connectivity is poorly distributed throughout the country. Whilst London and the southeast mostly enjoy fast internet access, some of the outlying regions and rural areas are still using the old telephone network’s copper cables for their infrastructure. Consequently speeds can be down to the ‘dial up’ rates of a decade or more back. next generation access involves improving these phone networks – which were never supposed to support high-bandwidth internet traffic – to fibre-optic cables which are capable of transmitting huge volumes of data very quickly. The problem is that such upgrades are pricey, and companies are not always ready to make the investment. However, this means that whole villages can be stuck with slow internet access. Given the role of the web for business, personal communication and life in general now, this is problematic. One solution is community broadband.

Community broadband is a way of bringing groups of people together and sharing connections between them. These are locally-organised programmes aimed at addressing ‘not spots’ – those areas that presently have little or no connectivity. They are often administrated by social enterprises or not-for-profit groups and are therefore cost-effective. There have already been some great success stories, with tens or hundreds of thousands of people in some towns connected to the high-speed web. This obviously comes with many benefits, not least that e-commerce now accounts for a sizeable proportion of GDP; good internet access is viewed as a prerequisite for the economic recovery which is currently elusive.

Communications technology is fast-moving. Only a few years ago it was almost unimaginable to browse the internet on a smartphone – the mobile phone revolution is itself less than 20 years old. Whilst this makes some businesses (and individuals) wary about upgrading – the new technology may soon become obsolete itself – it also means that those without next generation access are being left behind, reliant on phone cables that were never intended to handle the load that is currently demanded of them. The UK’s ICT infrastructure is patchy, and large areas – particularly remote places – have very slow access. Community broadband is a way of addressing this and bringing equality of speed to the country. This will be fundamental both to economic recovery and addressing the north/south divide in terms of web access.

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Next generation access on offer today

Although some regions of the country have an excellent ICT infrastructure, in others the technology is years behind – which might as well be decades in such an important and fast-moving area. next generation access might be an aspiration for the government, but it is far from the reality across Britain. Some rural areas have little or no broadband access, or rely on antiquated copper cables capable of carrying only a fraction of the information demanded for the high-bandwidth use of a modern business, for example. Community broadband is one way that groups of people have been able to address this reality, sometimes referred to as the ‘digital divide’.

The regions where the ICT infrastructure is patchy are often called ‘notspots’ – the opposite of the ‘hotspots’ that are home to a concentration of wifi networks or broadband coverage. If you live in one of these then you are likely to struggle to get online. Although there are some solutions, these can be expensive. Plus, some notspots are uncovered areas for mobile networks as well as broadband. This means that connecting via a smartphone is a non-starter, too.

That can be a real difficulty. Whereas some fifteen years ago internet access was considered unusual, or at least a luxury, now most people could not do without it – not without major changes to their lifestyles and company practices. We rely on email for quick, easy communication. We access information about goods and services on the web. Work often heavily depends on it. Businesses trade online, orders are placed and bills paid. Broadband access is a utility, like electricity or water. Not having it is a major disadvantage and represents a form of inequality.

Community broadband involves getting together with a group of other people in the same situation as you and procuring the next generation access that much of the rest of the country uses without thinking about it. The group may be a collection of local residents, who require better internet access. Or it could be a cluster of businesses on the same site, who know that their operations would receive a real boost from a 21st century ICT infrastructure. There are companies who can take account of these needs and address them by installing the architecture needed to bring you up to speed. These initiatives may be subsidised or organised by the government, who recognise the importance of UK-wide coverage.

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