Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Conference report: Broadband North Yorkshire, 19th February 2011

Last Saturday I attended the Broadband North Yorkshire conference, organised by Julian Smith, MP for Skipton and Ripon, in the light of North Yorkshire's selection by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) as one of four pilot areas to trial the deployment of superfast broadband.

Following Julian’s introduction, and a video message from Foreign Secretary William Hague (MP for Richmond, Yorkshire), Richard Flinton, Chief Executive of North Yorkshire County Council, set out the context for the county’s selection as a pilot. 30,000 people only have dial-up access currently, with 120,000 only able to receive a broadband service of less than the USC commitment of 2Mbps. Notspots and slowspots are not confined to the county’s rural areas, some locations in York’s outskirts also receive poor services. Current commercial superfast broadband plans include York, Harrogate and Filey but nowhere else.

Richard described broadband as a key economic enabler for the county and flagged the importance of tourism to North Yorkshire’s economy, reporting that a recent survey revealed that 90% of people now expect broadband to be available at their holiday destination. Lack of broadband access is a contributory factor to young people migrating away from the area; broadband takeup rates where services are available are as high as or higher than anywhere else in the country. Richard set out the NextGen North Yorkshire vision:
“Our vision is to bring the advantages of high-quality broadband to 100% of businesses and citizens in North Yorkshire by 2015. We want to enable all to participate in the digital world so that they can carry out their business when and how they wish.”
North Yorkshire does have a key advantage over other rural areas though – NYnet’s core network, which already connects 90% of public sector institutions across the county. Richard described this network as the platform to take forward North Yorkshire’s broadband ambition, especially as the network has already been used to provision a number of remote communities with broadband – see this previous post, with further details here and here. Richard closed by announcing that the council was making an additional £750,000 available to provide grants for 15 rural broadband projects.

Next up was Robert Ling from Yorkshire Forward, who provided an overview of BDUK’s role and activities to date, flagging Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future as the key text in this regard – though the full strategy document doesn’t appear to be available at the moment. The government’s intention is that by 2015 two thirds of the population should be served directly by the private sector, with the final third the focus of BDUK’s activity and funding. BDUK is providing £530m to 2015, “with a further £300m in 2016 and 2017 if required” and is also looking to leverage other sources of funding such as the European ERDF and RDPE programmes as well as private investment. Just as BDUK Chief Executive Robert Sullivan did at the recent broadband conference in Herefordshire (another BDUK pilot area), Robert flagged the importance of developing a local broadband plan. Local involvement is crucial, according to Robert: “this is your money, this is your broadband”.

The next session was called “Connecting Communities”, and included input from Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor for the Daily Telegraph, Natasha Innocent from Race Online 2012, Carl Wolf from Science City York, Penny Slatter from the Post Office, Rachel Fraser, BBC Learning Public Affairs Manager on the First Click media literacy project, Trish Quinn, Head of Strategic Partnerships at Directgov, Dr Richard Pope from the Airedale NHS Foundation Trust and Barry Dodd from the Yorkshire Enterprise Partnership. Some key bullet points from this session:
  • Matt Warman predicted a "revolution in healthcare" brought about by next generation broadband, which will make the digital divide more "painful and palpable" for those lacking access. He also argued that it's more important for rural areas to implement nextgen broadband than cities and urban areas, because the technology will make a much greater difference in such areas than in places like London.
  • Natasha Innocent outlined Race Online 2012's "inspire, encourage and support" strategy to increase the takeup of broadband and online services. She stressed the importance of communicating the benefits of broadband, in stark contrast to the current broadband advertising which generally relates solely to speed and price.
  • Carl Wolf flagged some of the innovations taking place in North Yorkshire, such as a company in Helmsely (this one I think?) which has licensed a technology developed elsewhere in Europe which can strip out the core from a copper cable, replacing it with fibre at significantly reduced installation costs (more details here). Other opportunities are created by the University of York's significant investment in film and TV production, as outlined in a recent speech by the Chancellor of York University and former Director-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke.
  • Penny Slatter described how the Post Office can help to grow the demand for broadband and help communities  by offering "mediated access between customers and Government; converting multi-channel interactions to electronic submissions" and by "supporting universal access to online Government services." The Post Office intends to be the "high street digital channel for customers to interact with Government supporting universal access to services".
  • Dr Richard Pope demonstrated how Airedale NHS Foundation Trust are employing telemedicine to deliver healthcare to prisons in a far less disruptive fashion in a five year project involving 15 prisons, as well as a set-top box based service for use in homes, which has been warmly received by patients.
  • Barry Dodd underlined the importance of nextgen broadband to competitiveness through two examples: companies worldwide collaborating online to design an electric car to be built in the UK, and the fact that broadband access provides a new means to access expensive software (via rental rather than license purchase), making complex and expensive software available to both large and small companies on a usage basis.
Discussion sessions followed, I attended the public sector and education workshop. Whilst an interesting discussion ensued, it struck me that current generation broadband services, which are widely available and used, aren't yet being exploited to their fullest extent in support of the delivery of public services. Whilst we have made some progress we still seem to be a good way behind countries such as the USA in the delivery of services such as telemedicine. Which doesn't help the investment case for nextgen services very much. It's also very significant that around 25% of the UK population can access current generation broadband, but chooses not to do so. My guess is that a significant proportion of this number will be elderly, so a technology which could assist them by helping them maintain their independence and their ability to live in their own homes for longer is to be welcomed? But such individuals are unlikely to be brought on board by any retail offering I think, meaning the public sector will need to think creatively if it's to improve the quality of life for a growing proportion of the population at the same time as reducing the cost of care to the public purse.

Lunch was followed by input from NYnet and industry on the way forward. David Cullen, Chief Executive of NYnet (a company wholly owned by North Yorkshire County Council) underlined the challenge of delivering ambitious broadband targets in the largest rural county (3,000 square miles) with a dispersed population (an average of 7.5 people per square kilometre). NYnet's core network offers a huge opportunity already, the challenge is to make this more available. The deployments in Gillamoor and Newton on Rawcliffe/Stape (community wireless provision utilising schools' fibre connections as backhaul) offer proof that it can be done. NYnet will provide nextgen access to 27 market towns across North Yorkshire, this will in turn support the creation of 250 digital community hubs which share backhaul with public sector requirements, with on average three communities being supported by each digital community hub. In terms of fun ding, initial indications are that around £25-30m funding is available from BDUK and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The procurement process will begin in April 2011 with a view to signing a contract by 31st March 2012.

Further industry input came from Rob Leenderts of Cable & Wireless, Bill Murphy of BT and Steve Richey of satellite broadband provider Avanti. Some concerns were expressed that NYnet's focus on market towns that already have current generation access when many communities have no or very poor connectivity was unfair, at which point the fact that BDUK funds were to address areas that the market won't reach was reiterated, together with the importance of market towns as an important link in the delivery chain to reach remote communities in a sustainable, effective way. Some frustrations were also expressed over the perception of public money being spent on services that arguably weren't as important as nextgen broadband, a criticism which has also been levelled against the high speed rail project.

These frustrations, similar to those expressed at the Herefordshire event, beg the question whether enough money has really been committed to supporting the roll-out of nextgen broadband. While the funding is to be welcomed, it's significantly lower than the amounts allocated for the same purpose elsewhere in the world. What was very clear from the conference was the opportunity and advantage that NYnet offers to the county, in particular, its model for provisioning rural communities in a sustainable way, based on an existing infrastructure, proving that it can be done. The question for me is the extent to which NYnet's approach can be replicated elsewhere, especially given the tight deployment timescales the government has committed to.

The conference closed with a commitment to meet again the same time next year and slides from the day are available here. And finally, from the photostream of the event on Flickr, watch out for the chap with the rucksack – I wouldn’t listen to anything he has to say.

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