Oxford University’s wake-up call to superfast-broadband fear-mongers

I was pleasantly awoken by my clock radio this morning to hear an Oxford University academic go “off-message”, as PR people and government spin doctors call it.

Alastair Nicholson of Said Business School was appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to answer questions about a Cisco-funded study which found that 24 countries had better-quality broadband than the UK. “Does it matter?” asked a characteristically combative John Humphrys.

Nicholson’s answer left the newsreader somewhat bemused, if not wrong-footed: “Ah, I don’t think so. Not at the moment.” A short pause followed.

Prompted to elaborate, the academic said: “We are getting good enough service for the applications we are using today. The fact that we’re not top of the league is rather like saying: ‘Have we got lots of motorways not in use?’. We might need them in the future, but we don’t need them at present.”

Nicholson also went on to say that the UK is rather well-served in terms of the percentage of the population that can access perfectly adequate broadband services, as my colleague Julian Herbert notes in a post published earlier today.

Humphrys pointed out that Nicholson’s assessment undermines the views of numerous politicians who believe that it is essential that their nation is at the top of the global superfast-broadband league tables. “Is it really just a matter of pride rather than common sense?” he asked. Partly, agreed Nicholson.

“Maybe we should take another look at this,” said Humphrys. “We’re planning to spend a small fortune on these very-high-speed connections, and the question should be: ‘Do we need them?’.”

“Some will say we do,” replied Nicholson. “I think you and I are saying: ‘Perhaps it’s not needed immediately’.”

Seemingly bemused by a guest that agreed with him, Humphries ended the interview with a jovial question: “And you won’t feel that you’ve been made a fool of if in six-months time they come up with some amazing Japanese or other application and we think: ‘My god, it’s too late now for us to catch up’?”

“There is that possible worry,” said Nicholson. He also chuckled, perhaps in the knowledge that not a single so-called ‘killer app’ for superfast broadband has emerged in all the years it has been available in Japan and elsewhere.

To Cisco’s credit, the Internet equipment giant has clearly stated that the study found that the UK’s broadband infrastructure is meeting consumers’ needs.

What’s disappointing is the number of news outlets which have led with the angle that UK is “lagging behind” or is “not fit for the future”. The fact is, several countries’ broadband infrastructure has been “fit for the future” for several years now and that future has still not arrived.

UK readers can click here to listen to the interview using BBC iPlayer. The segment is introduced about 55 minutes in.

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