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FAT PIPE for ALL: Britain’s new tech firms take it from the telcos

Comms-unist revival could put us in the broadband fast lane

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? Reeling under the influence of half a bottle of wine and six tots of exclusive Scotch, I’m introduced to a young woman who produces award-winning reality TV programmes involving the over-elaborate and inconceivably incompetent preparation of food by members of the public alongside celebrity chefs who one assumes must no longer be able to earn a living as ordinary chefs.

“Hello, I hope you are having a pleasant evening. I’m Alistair from The Register. I understand you make shit telly shows I don’t watch.”

This is probably why I tend not to get invited to press briefings. My mother always told me to speak the truth and “be yourself” but I find that people would much rather that I didn’t.

The woman in question had begun her career in the hobnail boot school of hardcore journalism and ended up filming fools getting in a sweat about baking a steak and kidney pavlova. I couldn’t let it pass without offering my condolences on this tragic turn of events.

Unfazed, she said that I wasn’t her demographic and therefore it didn’t matter what I thought.

This is a fair point but sounded rehearsed, which made me feel worse. Perhaps she has to deliver this kind of retort on a regular basis. I occasionally work – in a specialist technical capacity – at the Daily Mail so I know what it’s like to deal with horrified faces at parties when you admit this. Honesty gets you nowhere, I tell you.

Citizen Smith

Better broadband for Tooting

My generous and blameless hosts for the evening are Creative Clyde, who are promoting Glasgow for its flourishing media, creative and tech business. With my brutal honesty hat still rammed firmly over my thinning pate, I ought to admit without sarcasm or cynicism (me?) that these guys rock.

I’ve worked extended contracts in Glasgow over the years and loved it – in sharp comparison with overrated cities such as Manchester and Dublin – and its new tech vibe makes the place virtually irresistible if you don’t mind it raining 364 days a year.

So I was somewhat surprised by an admission let slip by one of the guys representing the funky businesses in the region concerning the availability of high-grade internet access.

I had launched into my usual rant about the appalling state of internet connectivity in the Shoreditch/Hoxton area of east London where earlier this year I took over an office. The guy I was moaning to just leant over conspiratorially and whispered: “Huh, you should see what it’s like up here.”

My original plan back in May was to populate the 2,200 square feet in the heart of the capital’s trendy Tech City/Silicon Roundabout/Digital Hub with vigorous JavaScripters, illustrators and video editors to form the backbone of a digital advertising design agency. It fell by the wayside almost immediately. Why? I discovered that internet access in London’s Tech City was on a par with Will.I.Am’s contribution to the advancement of humanity, i.e. non-fucking-existent.

It turned out my digital empire was going to have to run, in the short term at least, on a domestic TalkTalk DSL line that maxed out at 4Mb/s. Unbelievably, I went on to discover that almost all the neighbouring businesses were in exactly the same predicament.

F-plan diet

Calling round the usual suppliers, I was to find that my only options were either to switch to alternative but equally childish DSL contracts or to order a leased line. In other words, I am expected to choose between £1,000/month for Disneyland fireworks or £15/month for a sparkler, and nothing in between.

My first attempt to get a leased line installed began in June, which brought a site surveyor from BT Openreach to my door. He pointed to a manhole cover on the pavement just outside the building, telling me the fibre cable ran under it. When he eventually costed the work to connect the fibre from the manhole to my office wall – a distance of two feet – it came out in excess of £4,000.

Basically, they’d installed fibre all the way down the street without bothering to connect it to any of the office buildings along the route. The only way to hook up to it was to stump up the four grand for installation and take out a long and hugely expensive contract with a comms provider. If I was a sarcastic or cynical person (me?) this would lead me to believe that the whole fibre project in Hackney had been devised not so much to serve the growing tech businesses here but to fleece them one by one.

Here the similarities with Glasgow’s Tech City, and quite likely all regions of tech start-up activity throughout the country, come into focus. IT start-ups don’t choose these places because they are well served by the comms infrastructure. They choose them because rent is cheap, investment grants are available and you rub brain cells with like-minded enterprising dudes. The comms infrastructure, as far as I can work out, simply sits on its backside, rubs its hands and waits to rip us off.

Manhole cover

There’s fast fibre down there. Apparently
Source: Lisa Larsson

Suspiciously, when you raise the question of inadequate internet access with politicians, they fart about supporting mono-browed, chicken-shagging hermits living in the sticks who apparently need gigabit broadband so they can order groceries from Ocado and browse FeatheredButtocks.com.

Meanwhile, in the centre of the British capital, Boris Johnson’s purported saviours of the IT economy are having to use data comms marginally less effective than sending smoke signals from the roof.

As ever, the only answer is to take matters into your own hands. My office is part of a freehold site of 80+ media businesses which has reversed the tables, drawn up our own detailed spec and invited tenders from comms providers. The offers have come in, leased line quotes have been slashed dramatically (how about that?) and we’re looking forward to picking a lucky winner after the deadline day – which is today, as it turns out.

It’s been six months since I took on this Tech City office and on this deadline day I’m still on 4Mb/s DSL. But I can see the end of this particular tunnel and I am reassured, as Creative Clyde itself demonstrates, that in the face of post-Thatcherist monopolies ruling the nation’s essential utilities and stuffing shareholder pockets with cash from people least able to afford it, collective action really can work. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He discovered an inexpensive stopgap for his narrowband nightmare: he just replaced the router and all Ethernet cables. The result was an effective doubling of speed on the same crusty old line.

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