Last week I had the pleasure to meet Chris Conder, a British farmer. She was irritated by her slow Internet connection, much slower than her friends and family in the city. She was told, as I have been, it would cost at least €10,000 to connect to ultra-fast broadband.
But instead of waiting or complaining, she founded “Broadband for the Rural North” (B4RN): a campaign that grew into a company that completely changed my ideas about the broadband market. And together with her neighbors, she started digging. Within days she had the connection from the nearest network to her home, over 1 km away, which big companies had said was economically impossible.
Then she helped others in Lancashire to do the same. All funded by community shares. Now, several years later, B4RN offers internet at 1000 megabits per second for about €40 a month. A speed that makes the Japanese jealous, which barely exists elsewhere in Europe, and 500 times faster than UK government targets! Chris Conder proves ultrafast broadband is economically attractive with huge demand ready to be unlocked, even in the smallest communities. It’s not the investment in ultra-fast broadband that’s a risk: it’s outdated business models.
By 2020 I want every European to have fast broadband coverage at 30 Megabits per second. We won’t get there if everyone keeps tiptoeing forward. The Netherlands has the highest fixed broadband penetration in the EU. But even there, only around one in five of those are above our 30 Megabits target; and almost none at the Gigabits Chris is offering.
We do not have to look far ahead to realise we need this fast broadband. These days, dad can be watching the match online, while mum skypes with a foreign friend and the kids play online smartphone games. None of that would have happened ten years ago: who knows what the world will look like in another ten? There’s so many innovations possible: from 24-hour healthcare at home, to smart energy grids, to kids getting lessons from the other side of the world, to fast and flexible access to your favourite games, music and films in the cloud. But one thing is certain: none of that can be done without fast broadband.
Alan Turing, founder of computer science, would have turned one hundred on Saturday. Back in 1952, he said, “we can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done“. That’s still true today, and particularly of broadband. When people tell me it can’t be done, I think of the innovation and energy of a farmer called Chris.
(A version of this blog post recently appeared in the Dutch Newspaper Financieele Dagblad / de Nederlandse versie van deze tekst is verschenen als column in het Financieele Dagblad van 23 juni 2012.)