THE BLOG

Without Fibre, Innovation Will Come To A Grinding Halt

16/06/2017 14:33

Technology certainly drives the imagination. A friend of mine has been talking about buying up rural pubs, in Ireland, convinced that driverless cars will lead a major change in drinking habits as people socialise out-of-town again. It may happen, but then again this is a revolution that could veer off in an entirely different direction.

How we all wish we could predict where technology will take us. As fibre connectivity was first being rolled out across Ireland, I was often asked "What do hairdressers need Wi-Fi for?". In this case the road ahead was easy to see. Hairdressers, I explained may have ten people waiting and many of them will be on their smartphones or tablets. If someone offers them free Wi-Fi while they wait, that's where they will go.

The promise of Wi-Fi for business has certainly been borne out. Many travellers and guests, for example now choose hotels on the basis of the quality of the Wi-Fi rather than the breakfast.

Next generation communications have changed the nature of the entertainment business, spearheaded by Netflix and similar over-the-top providers. The content revolution has already happened and although prediction is a dangerous game, it seems likely that transport is where we can rely on there being the next big shift. Driverless cars are on their way but if we are to enjoy the benefits we will need an overhaul of connectivity, whichever country we inhabit.

It is clear that reliance on the old copper phone networks is not going to support the advances that are all coming down the line, in whatever shape they arrive. Driverless technology for example, requires a robust network of road sensors and base stations to transmit information more efficiently and reliably than the already overcrowded airwaves. Retrofitting the phone network to serve these requirements will not work - the speed and capacity cannot be provided by copper, now a metal which probably has more value being recycled for the building trade and it's tough for the old phone companies to give up their copper given the returns they make from it (which won't increase with fibre).

Innovation requires new infrastructure using fibre which, being made from silicates, is not exactly an expensive item. This infrastructure is the plumbing along which the incredible volumes of data will pass to facilitate access to the amazing capabilities of cloud computing and the Internet of Things. If we neglect it, a terrible bottleneck in data transmission will reduce any chance of the innovation on which the future of society depends.

There is of course an overlap with politics. Super-fast broadband connectivity will, for example, undoubtedly lead to developments in medicine - particularly in long-term monitoring of the chronically ill.

Using high-quality fibre connections, clinical staff can monitor symptoms and check medication remotely in real time, enabling patients to stay in their own homes more frequently and make less journeys to major treatment centres. Files can be stored and shared in the cloud as and where clinicians and patients need them. With super-fast broadband, the healthcare sector can exploit all the advantages of cloud computing, overcoming the labyrinthine complications that have bedevilled previous attempts at ambitious IT overhauls. All this provides significant relief to our hospitals and the healthcare heroes working in them.

No politician responsible for national health delivery will, however, authorise the roll-out of remote care and telemedicine unless national coverage is more or less guaranteed. Ubiquity is essential to avoid the accusations of introducing a "post code lottery" or favouring metropolitan residents over rural. In Ireland, that charge will always carry a lot of weight.

Politics aside, ubiquity must nonetheless be a key aim if the undoubted economic benefits are to be reaped from new fibre broadband infrastructure. Areas remote from the cities are attractive to many entrepreneurs with young families and can become hubs of innovation if they have the super-fast connectivity that digital businesses cannot live without.

Ireland is relatively well-placed to enjoy a surge of innovation on the back of expanded fibre infrastructure. Although we have a dispersed and heavily rural population, governmental initiatives such as the National Broadband Plan will bring smaller towns high-quality connectivity.

As a country we have also been surprisingly bold in pushing changes in behaviour. Few would have expected Ireland to have introduced a public smoking ban when it did and the country led the way in banning supermarket plastic bags.

Now we are on the brink of huge change that may well transform many parts of the country, setting an example for other areas of Europe that feel they need to catch up in the race for super-fast connectivity.

It is true that when the first homes were connected to electricity, nobody would have predicted the universality of dishwashers, computers and home entertainment systems. As with the driverless car, we may not be entirely sure where we are going just yet, but we know we cannot get there without ubiquitous, open-access, super-fast fibre networks. It is the only way of freeing up the data bottleneck that will otherwise throttle vital innovation in all sectors.

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