Growth 'greatly restricted' by internet lottery
by Fiona Hall
The importance of the internet in modern society cannot be overstated and high-speed access must be available to all, not just a few
It can be difficult to remember just how slow non-broadband internet is. When you clicked the link to read this article, it probably took less than a second for the page to appear, rather than the tortuous wait that we had to endure on dial-up. But for many parts of rural Britain, a lack of high-speed internet is not just a bad memory; it is a real hindrance to both their personal and professional lives.
So it is encouraging to report that during last month's Strasbourg plenary session, MEPs voted to support targets of 100 per cent broadband coverage by 2013, with at least 50 per cent of people able to access a super-fast connection by 2020. These targets are of vital importance if the objectives of the EU 2020 strategy – to promote smart, sustainable economic growth – are to be achieved.
The internet underpins so much of our society and economy that it is almost impossible to overstate its importance. Without providing a robust and pervasive broadband network, any hope of future growth is greatly restricted. One of the great attractions of the internet was its promised geographical democratisation. With everyone connected, it wouldn't matter where you worked.
But the lack of high-speed internet in many rural areas has forced businesses to relocate to traditional urban centres. With almost all companies having some web presence, this rural brain drain is not restricted to high-tech companies. The pressure is felt right down to the sole-trader who just wants a website to advertise his shop. Providing 100 per cent access to speeds of at least 2Mbps should alleviate at least some of that immediate pressure.
Beyond this basic level of service, there is a growing acceptance that a wider rollout of super-fast broadband is needed. Not only will this narrow the gap between EU and Asian markets – where broadband performance tends to far outstrip our own – but it will also open up the possibility of hitherto undreamt-of technical applications.
The MEPs' Heart Group, of which I am a member, recently heard a presentation on the use of technology to improve treatment of patients. While remote monitoring might initially sound less personal and more clinical, it is actually a much more effective way of keeping a check on people at risk. Rather than have a vulnerable, often-elderly, patient make long-distance trips to the hospital – with all its attendant stresses and strains – they can be monitored from the comfort of their own home.
However, this relies on robust high-speed networks. And having those networks in only cities or major towns would result in two tier access to the most innovative and effective care – an unacceptable postcode lottery dependent on broadband quality. So, ubiquitous broadband access is needed for fair access across a broad range of services, not just to help businesses.
This is not an easy challenge to solve. It's difficult to deliver high speeds across the long stretches of copper wiring required by scattered rural communities. While wireless broadband may work in some instances, it has issues of reliability and scale. And both wired and wireless solutions encounter problems of cost. 100 per cent coverage means providing for even the smallest village, and rolling out the infrastructure has so far proven to be prohibitively expensive.
While the broadband report suggests sharing best practice and factoring internet access into the early stages of planning, the success of the scheme will inevitably rely on government investment. To this end in the UK, the coalition government has set aside £834m to ensure the country leads the way on pervasiveness and speed of broadband access.
And while the EU-wide targets are to be welcomed, what seems ambitious in 2011 is unlikely to still be viewed the same way in five or ten years' time. With innovation happening at an exponential pace in this sector, it is our responsibility to keep up or else find ourselves working toward targets that no longer reflect the needs of businesses and individuals.
Fiona Hall is an MEP for the North East of England and a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament
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