We can talk about the latest social media innovations, or the fastest smartphones available as much as we like, but behind all this glitz and veneer of modernity there is, at least in Britain, an ancient communications infrastructure which may be failing to meet demands.
You just need to subscribe to even a handful of tech review sites to see the latest in new apps and hardware. For the most part every innovation comes with a tag of ‘better performance’, ‘higher definition’, ‘improved sound quality’ and so on. If you owned a smartphone you would have noticed that apps that had started their lives with a few MB of data have in a matter of months become monstrous resources hogs (why is Google+ app so huge?), demanding more RAM, ROM, whatever, for their basic use, as well as asking for privileged access to all of your phone’s inner recesses. Movie streaming, especially HD, requires greater bandwidth despite the latest in compression, and so on. But while software developers and hardware manufacturers are happy to push ahead with higher specs, feeding on our atavistic desire for more and greater, the infrastructure that really drives the whole experience is developing at a much slower pace.
We are all going to be on 4G – maybe not.
Take mobile data communications in the UK. Yes, 4G is (slowly) being implemented. But I fear once the hype’s over we’ll be back to where we are now with 3G (do you remember the 3G assurances that in a matter of months we would all be virtually on 3G? How many of you can reliably get 3G well outside key urban areas?). The problem is that the basic mobile communication infrastructure is ancient, set in place in the ‘80s, rather than the 21st century. It has since been patched up, but despite all claims no real major investment has been undertaken, and certainly without a long term coordinated strategy. I often wonder whether it would have been more efficient to have had a separate network infrastructure provider (like the National Grid), with private operators piggybacking on it, rather than lots of different masts strewn around the country but almost totally inconsistent with the fast changing demographics, like travel and population patterns. Could we really ask such a network to cope with the demands and innovations of the 21st century?
Fast broadband – but only when it works.
The situation is similar for providers of broadband through landlines. While BT, sorry Openreach, plods along towards a fast fibre optics infrastructure at what appears to be the speed of an elephant through a jungle, other alternative providers like for example Virgin have little incentive to offer reliable services. I happen to live in a village where the option is stark – either take BT at speeds of between 1.5 to 3.5Mbp, or jump on the flashy, and expensive, Virgin bandwagon and get up to 60Mbp, theoretically. I can hear people commenting that I should just be thankful and keep my mouth firmly shut, but the truth is that this isn’t real competition and you do feel it when things go horribly wrong. And I am afraid to say with Virgin this happens all too often, with days with no service at all, with no explanation and never, ever, an apology (let alone a refund). It’s just tough luck if you are working and the whole things go down – consider yourself fortunate that you have had a service up to that instant and despite your regular monthly payments of course. I do wonder sometime what would happen if I simply decided to take a payment break, alleging something like ‘I am aware of the situation and an accountant is on its way to fix this’. Think again then if you seriously believe that this kind of competition adds value to customers and if this is the sort of network infrastructure that can really foster innovation.
So we plod along, we buy smarter smartphones, faster computers, download biggers apps, while not giving much consideration to the communications backbone that’s needed to drive all this stuff. And I haven’t even touched upon what’s behind all of this – electricity. Given the parlous state of our power generation infrastructure and the current climatic conditions we could shortly revert to candles and paper (my handwriting is now appalling, how’s yours? Time to get some practice!). Shouldn’t we give these issues more thought before we rushed to upgrade our data hogging devices?