Superfast broadband – let’s figure out some way to pay for the damn thing, please

On the same day that we are told as a nation we only send 35% of our young people to University compared to the Finns, who send 63% and are thus it seems the most graduate-dense country on Earth, we find a genuinely intriguing suggestion on how we can generally raise our national ‘IQ’: spend less on the NHS so as to fund that elusive superfast broadband we all seem to want so much.

The idea is that to become more competitive as a nation-state, we should look to switch say 1% to 1.5% of the annual commitment to the NHS into funding the kind of national fibre to the home network BT says will cost at least £2bn more than it is as a corporate willing to spend – or the Coalition willing to put any taxpayer dosh into either, to be fair.

And in an example of a virtuous circle or what, the suggestion is that such small percentage savings could in turn be achieved less by slashing headcount (claptrap about wasteful government ICT aside, the vast majority of cost in any public sector is people cost – which will therefore be the line item being nuked in October, as not even 20 NPfITs, woeful as they might well be, cost as much as a few thousand civil servants) than by more use of e-health and e-education: in other words, use broadband to deliver stuff to people, so they’ll want more good content on fast broadband – and so on.

The idea doesn’t come from any UK think-tank, left or right, or even the fevered brain of an IT giant mogul, but from the UN body tasked with all things telco and broadband related, the ITU (International Telecommunications Union).

The ITU has been promoting its recent report on the state of the global digital divide – and thus its head was recently pressing the flesh with Westminster policy wonks and associated Digital Britain fans.

The gentleman in question, ITU secretary general Hamadoun Touré, has been telling anyone prepared to listen that creating a UK superfast backbone for business, education, health and consumer alike would almost certainly create greater national wealth all round in the order of a 1% to 3% national GDP boost, potentially.

Touré is also arguing that our competitors in the global marketplace have started to wake up to the idea that highly available broadband links as essential 21st Century infrastructure that needs to be invested in – and are possibly more willing than we are so to do.

"Governments [worldwide] are more aware that telecommunications is a profit-making, job-creating industry," Touré said last week in London. "They are starting to understand that they must provide the right legal and regulatory frameworks that attract investment."

It just is a fact that, in the real world, fibre to UK Plc will be delivered mainly via industry, not government, as the current government has declined to offer any taxpayer money to help build it.

That means we will get it. But not in all parts of the country, not as a utility service, it’ll cost more for some of us and its benefits may not come through as quickly as they might have done.

But the ITU suggestion is at least innovative: it does remind us that broadband is in many ways the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century railway boom… which of course the British did incredibly well out of, arguably seizing the high ground from rivals like Imperial Germany and post-Napoleanic France very effectively.

And the graduate link? Less of our young people will go to college now, as it will cost them and their parents more. Less will do the vital STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects we need them to do become anything other than hairdressers or reality TV show contestants.

And great, challenging, interactive education content over great broadband may just be the missing link in changing that depressing picture.

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