Boardroom Despatches: Broadband ABCs

A heartening experience in the Scottish highlands...

A heartening experience in the Scottish highlands...

In the first of two columns this week that draw on this month's ABC broadband conference for inspiration, Rene Carayol explains how he rediscovered his faith, in no small part due to a technology leader we know well…

At the beginning of the month I journeyed up to Aviemore in Scotland, a place known as a ski resort but on that occasion the location for a big conference about broadband, organised by ABC, the Access to Broadband Campaign. By its end I was blown away, my hopes alive.

What I saw from many of the participants was real courage. They want true broadband in their private and working lives and in many cases are making it happen across whole communities. And that's a challenge in many far-flung places across the UK.

BT and others shirk the investment necessary for universal broadband. They use all sorts of equations and sums which all seem to come up with reasons why it shouldn't be rolled out in certain places.

But they're missing a trick. What's needed is a little risk-taking, a little bit of entrepreneurialism. It is no good to only look at its cost. Consider its revenue potential.

When broadband is available in an area, all sorts of things happen. I am not going to try to cover them all. That's not the focus here. But after a time of BT asking prospective local users to sign petitions, indicating the likely size of a market, let me point out how people actually gravitate to places that have it. Telecommuters spring up - often people who wouldn't have been there to sign on any dotted line in advance.

Back to the conference, I took some time to look at those exhibiting. There were plenty of local entrepreneurs on show and I became excited about how they are exploiting broadband.

These people were generally tech-literate but not geeks. I divided them into two main groups. Some fell into both categories.

There were those asking: How can I make money out of broadband?

And there were those asking: How can all this help my local community?

Many there were showing what can be done but I was a little dismayed at the pattern of most debates. About a third of the time was spent on looking under bonnets, seeing how stuff worked. Yawn. Around a half was spent on what it could do. That was better. We heard about flexible working, always-on access, access from anywhere on the globe, relationships broadband enables.

But the techie side of this was a little self-indulgent. And there was always an air of 'it could be better'.

The final third or so was on the social dimension. It covered social inclusion, education, bridging the digital divide - moving and instructive sessions.

So it was a mixed bag. But let me highlight two points, one a negative, one a huge positive.

The scariest element of the day was that most attendees had the look, feel and dress of techies. How many polyesters were killed to make those suits?

The plus side I hadn't expected came in the shape of two fellow speakers. I believe we need champions and leaders for technology, generally, in the UK, and for things like broadband specifically.

Step forward the founder of COLT and Professor Peter Cochrane, a fellow columnist on these pages.

I was very, very impressed by what they had to say. I was wowed by both men - clearly technology leaders, with compelling visions. This is what we need, I thought.

As the conference closed, there was a real buzz. The interaction between all present had been good and I had rediscovered my faith in technology. In short, when our community gets it together, boy it gets it together.

I believe we can make broadband work in the UK, for providers, users, communities and others. It won't be easy but I feel more confident now. I sense we're moving toward a realisation that we can't afford not to do it.