A new bandwagon is being loaded up by a familiar cohort of rent-seekers – this time on behalf of the rural communities without access to broadband internet. Climbing aboard after an initial rousing by the Prince of Wales are the Commission on Rural Communities, the Telegraph newspaper and other worthies from the shires.
Their claim is odd. The internet has become so important to doing business in rural areas, especially for farmers, they say, that not having it is seriously disadvantaging them. The first oddity is that if any service really is of critical importance, businesses usually pay over the odds for it to make sure they get it delivered. The second oddity is that farming is a controlled, essentially nationalised, industry in which the need for the internet is being imposed by government regulations. The disadvantage is not a competitive one, it’s a bureaucratic one. Having created more regulating bureaucrats to monitor farming practices than there are farmers, an unanticipated consequence is that these clerks need to communicate with their clients. On-line methods are cheaper than driving a post van with mail to them, so government is enforcing on-line methods of servicing the industry. It’s their very own version of “any colour as long as it’s black". (Note to HMG – Ford’s now come in all shapes and colours.)
Mission creep for the bandwagon is already happening; “rural traders" are also affected, and rurally based specialist on-line food businesses. Well, just a minute, if you are a specialist on-line food business shouldn’t you have thought about your on-line access before you started? And isn’t there a way around the problem, Britain is not a big country; a decent internet connection can’t be more than twenty miles away almost everywhere. These businesses are not sending their cheeses through the wires of the web, they’re taking orders that way and I doubt next day delivery is absolutely essential. Putting your administration where there is a connection and your production in the hills can’t be that complicated. Get real, you’re deep in the country, you’re in business, adapt.
I agree that it would be good for rural communities to have access to broadband internet and it could be a useful commercial tool for them – not least to generate more competition in the rural supply chain. But there are two important issues here, one economic, and one technical. The economic one is that a group of rent-seekers has found a pork barrel they believe can feed off at the expense of other taxpayers. They are seeking a subsidy. They shouldn’t, they will end up beholden to other parties for a key tool of their business, losing some more of their commercial freedom in the process. They need to pay for this service themselves, perhaps at a premium, but it will be theirs to make gains from and it will also upgrade itself to their advantage through time through their sovereignty as consumers.
The technical issue is that broadband, as presently delivered, is a “cludge". ADSL uses copper wire technology, raising the voltage and data frequency/capacity of existing wires that are in most places very old. That’s why broadband is faster when you are nearer to your local telephone exchange. If you live in a distant place you need to wait until a locally situated sub-exchange exists with an optical fibre connection. That puts you near to your exchange like everyone else with broadband.
But think about it, putting this technology into rural areas is a civil engineering issue, digging trenches, running cables, building small huts with optical amplifiers in remote valleys. There is almost nothing that government is slower or less efficient at as agreeing where to place infrastructure. Planning, agreeing a plan, funding a plan, clearing a plan through Local Authority Planning takes for ever. That’s why some rural communities have actually taken to digging their own trenches to bring optical fibre nearer (privatization has allowed you to hook third party fibre into BT’s networks thank goodness).
During “for ever" there are other technologies that will be ready with a far faster installation track; broadband wireless, broadband satellite, broadband via the power grid to name three. Rural communities would be far better asking the government to get out of the way, lobbying private entities (or creating their own Rural Broadband Corporations) to get a price, a contract and a timescale for their own broadband. They’d pay a bit more, but they would get an early service, with proper upgrades and wouldn’t be beholden to others because of an unjust begging bowl.