In the UK a debate is raging. Should we or shouldn’t we. The UK government has committed to spending £32.7bn on creating High Speed rail 2 – a project known as HS2. This involves the creation of a new railway line that will enable trains that run at speeds of up to 250mph running between London and the Midlands and then a second line continuing up to the North of England. The idea is to connect the cities north of London to Europe making them more accessible for business.
Both train and broadband are of course key parts of any economy’s infrastructure and making them faster and more accessible is vital. However, for one of these the UK government is willing to drop £32.7bn ($49.2bn), whereas for the other one the European Union decided to slash proposed funding to the Connected European Facility (CEF) by €8.2bn ($10.6bn), thus ruling out any spare cash for broadband network creation. Guess which way round this is?
And while the CEF is a European project the cuts were suggested by none other than UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who wanted to ensure that the UK paid less into the EU coffers. Luckily the UK isn’t actually affected by the CEF cuts as it has the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) fund instead but that totals just £425m. Wow. Not quite 32.7bn is it?
Some estimates claim that to cover the whole of the UK in fibre will cost £30bn. And that’s full fat fibre-to-the-home (FTTH), not just fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) that we or at least some have now. It’s quite clear then where the UK government’s priorities lie.
In fact lie is the active word. The UK government claims that HS2 will boost the economy by between $41.4 and £46.9bn, from job creation, ticket sales, and reduced congestion and presumably enabling people being able to get from place to place faster, encouraging them to do business – but the evidence for this is essentially web pages saying that this is the case. It’s not compelling.
Has the government put enough effort into ascertaining the economic benefits that national, high-speed broadband could bring? While widescreen, high resolution video conferencing sounds cool and futuristic it’s not as funky as super slick trains whizzing round the country, at least not to old school politicians.
The same politicians that is, that are known for their vanity projects. The British politicians want to keep up with the rest of the continent, particularly France, which has enjoyed high-speed trains for ages. Now there’s nothing wrong with a bit of friendly national pride to get the engineering muscles moving, a bit of aspiration, nobility and pride in great engineering. After all, it got us to the moon. But then it also brought us two World Wars, so you know, two sides of the coin.
Intelligent thinking is what’s required, and if superfast trains come at the expense (literally) of decent broadband for the have-nots, then the country will still be all the poorer, especially if, to make matters worse, there’s not decent, affordable wifi or 4G LTE available on board, and to make matter worse, when you get there a full 30 minutes earlier than on the old slow trains, you can’t get online at decent speeds anyway.