Towards the end of last year, Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, launched Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – a £530m initiative aimed at supporting universal internet coverage through community involvement and private sector investment.
“Our goal is simple,” said the minister, “within this parliament we want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe.” This target must be met if we are to see the renaissance in small business and hi-tech industry the government craves. In this, local government has a pivotal role to play.
If lessons are to be learnt from the past, it is that big, centralised, framework procurement processes don’t work as well as they first promise. Rory Stewart MP – who’s leading the drive for improved internet access in rural areas – has advised government away from the ‘one size fits all’ solution.
The difficulty is that big, centralised, framework procurement processes tend to look better from the Treasury’s perspective.
But the expansion and improvement of superfast broadband (and the exciting 4G mobile internet expected to emerge sometime around 2013/14 must be a story about community pressure and local solutions.
This is why Stewart recently called on the government to quadruple investment in superfast broadband to £2.1bn, the MP for Penrith and the Border declaring: “Making such an investment would be extremely commercially viable. And in the long-term we would see a 20 year return. If we are able to make that case, then the economy stands a good chance for growth.”
In Lincoln, North Kesteven District Council wanted “to work with communities and businesses on initiatives to improve digital connectivity” and, accordingly, initiated a conversation to help it identify the digital needs of the area.
North Kesteven is not alone in such ambitions. Rural authorities in Cumbria, Herefordshire, Surrey, Suffolk and North Yorkshire are all piloting broadband projects that focus on engagement and open, collaborative decision-making on tackling broadband ‘not-spots’.
“We must not underestimate the impact that securing this [broadband] investment will have on local business growth, improving educational attainment and removing a major block to public service transformation in Suffolk,” believes Councillor Mark Bee, Leader of Suffolk County Council.
These councils are all accepting risk by going after individual models. Central government must join them and resist the temptation to spread this £530m too thinly across too large an area.
Some of the local pilots will obviously fall short of their ambitions – but this will provide valuable educational material that can be shared, learnt from and then re-mixed by other authorities.
Councils must also be much more flexible – superfast broadband and a better connected population doesn’t just help enterprise, it is also increasingly becoming essential for public services as we see the rise in telehealth and tele-education.
Councils must therefore work closely over coming years with residents and businesses in order to best respond to these localised needs and nuanced technological requirements. As Bee says, “Suffolk’s Local Broadband Plan is an example of what can be achieved in partnership between public, private and voluntary sector organisations”.
But this isn’t all just about technology. Other authorities, where connectivity is more assured, are working hard to tailor creative solutions by working with digital champions from the community. Martha Lane Fox’s Race Online project has identified digitally-minded leaders who can help drive local innovation and boost public service productivity.
Natasha Innocent from Race Online spoke recently at an event I was organising. The work they are doing in Liverpool, supporting its aspirations to become a ‘networked city’, is worth exploration.
“Over 1,000 digital champions were recruited over the Give an Hour weekend of 29th-30th October,” reveals Innocent. “The network is a broad one and we will be working with Liverpool over the next six months to learn lessons on how to ensure the network remains active and engaged.”
Another case study is provided by Wandsworth. Silicon junction – a play on silicon valley and silicon roundabout – is a loose, agile network of local creative businesses that occasionally collaborate to pitch for high-end contracts usually too large to approach individually.
As with Liverpool, in Wandsworth broadband speed is fine. What those involved with silicon junction are lobbying for instead is an easing of visa restrictions for foreign skilled workers and for the council to make more buildings in the borough available on short-term leases to start-ups to encourage growth.
Obviously the first of these is a massive national policy issue, but the reshaping of lease conditions is something that local government could look to act upon tomorrow.
So whilst the renaissance in small business and hi-tech industry requires technological infrastructure, Liverpool and Wandsworth show that there are also socioeconomic and bureaucratic barriers that are potentially restricting growth.
Even if the government was ticking all of these boxes, however, would the transformation be quick enough to keep up with the pace of technological innovation? While the industry and nation watches and waits for blanket broadband coverage and 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE), in the meantime data usage on mobile handsets is surging ahead.
Neil Prior, Head of the Local Government Futures Forum at O2, says: “In the third quarter of 2011, nine out of 10 new contract handsets purchased were smartphones, so what local government needs to determine is how best to use this medium to communicate, in parallel with the emerging broadband infrastructure.
“One of the priorities for 2012 is to work closely with local government to identify how we can better engage the customer using the myriad apps that are now available on smartphones.”
This evolution looks set to increase – especially with regards to local government. As we identify in our recent report ‘Going where the eyeballs are’, the current momentum of the web is very much with the local. Initiatives like Foursquare, O2 Priority Moments, FixMyStreet and even Mumsnet are about connecting people with place, often with where they are right now.
The case for local approaches to broadband and 4G investment is clear. With this £530m, government should empower local authorities with the option to make finance facilities available specifically for communities to move ahead with their own initiatives when and where possible.
These genuinely localised pilots will allow for many more enterprise zones and silicon junctions to pop-up, which in years to come will pay dividends to the authority and the British economy as a whole.