Internet speeds are crucial to the economy – hyperfast broadband can add more than £10,000 to the price of an average house in Edinburgh – but the UK is lagging behind much of the rest of the world, writes John McLellan.
For the uninitiated, Fifa 19 is the latest version of the electronic game much beloved of professional footballers looking for ways to relax which don’t involve driving expensive cars at motorway speeds in built-up areas or betting on horse-racing in Singapore.
It’s also immensely popular with teenagers like my son who got his copy for his recent birthday and, with the usual excitement, set about downloading it onto his Xbox. About 12 hours later, he was ready to play.
So what, I hear you say, but the amount of time taken to download and upload information is one of the most serious barriers to economic growth as Edinburgh sets out to grab the title of “Data Capital of Europe” in a way that will make a real impact on the city’s economy.
At the heart of the £1.3bn City Region Deal is a promise to invest nearly £800m in research and development, including the UK’s first Robotarium, the beginnings of which are in Edinburgh University’s Informatics centre where a Nasa robot designed with an unmanned Mars mission in mind is on display. Some £270m has been ear-marked for “data-driven innovation” but the main problem with anything reliant on mass data handling is not so much the computer power needed for the analysis, but the transmission speed needed for massive electronic documents. Increasingly, those documents won’t just be written, audio or video information but complex technical data involved in increasingly sophisticated 3D printing. That in turn is key to limiting the expansion of vehicle-delivered goods and the most significant factor in traffic growth.
The issue in most cities is reliance on copper cable networks laid 30 to 40 years ago and the urgent need to replace them with fibre-optics which transmit information from lasers at near light speed. Without fibre cabling, it will take Edinburgh organisations hours to send and receive electronic information while competitors with hyperfast fibre-optic links zoom ahead.
Britain, according to digital infrastructure provider CityFibre, might be the world’s fifth or sixth biggest economy, but it’s 29th for connectivity and the pace of change was illustrated in an Edinburgh University Informatics briefing this week which pointed out that 90 per cent of the world’s data has been collected in the past two years.
The simple message is significant sustainable economic growth is increasingly reliant on data technology. All products rely on reaching their markets quickly and reliably and the City Deal’s investment in data research and development will come to nothing if the digital drovers’ trails aren’t switched from copper to fibre.
Happily for Edinburgh there is a plan, a £100m roll-out of fibre-optic cabling by CityFibre in partnership with Vodafone, and already 300 Edinburgh schools and public offices have been linked to provide the skeleton for expansion across the city in the next five years.
What this means physically are cables being laid beneath pavements in trenches a foot wide and six inches deep, taking two to three days per street. The ultimate prize is an estimated £1bn of wider economic benefit if the city is completely 5G capable, impossible without fibre cabling.
The aim is to make copper cables currently used by BT and Virgin obsolete by 2033, but in case anyone thinks this means Vodafone will own the city, once the new network is laid it will be opened up to competitors. The programme starts this November in Leith, not surprising given the number of design businesses which rely on fast transmission of large documents, but also Balerno.
The benefit of having your pavement dug up is, according to Vodafone/CityFibre’s analysis, a four per cent increase in value of properties with hyperfast capability. And for my son’s football games? Fifa 19 is approximately 40 gigabytes and rather than hours it will take less than seven minutes to download. Game on.
Tourist tax in the rough With some prominent supporters of Edinburgh’s Tourism Tax scheme concluding that, despite the apparently warm words, Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of a nationwide consultation involving the Scottish Tourism Alliance is hitting the Transient Visitor Levy ball firmly into the deep rough. With the STA thought unlikely to withdraw its opposition, the consultation is seen more as a way of cooling the unwelcome heat generated by friction between the SNP’s Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey and tourism minister Fiona Hyslop. Who now would bet against Edinburgh having full hyperfast broadband before it has a TVL?
A flogging in order? Some mistake, surely. Edinburgh SNP councillor George Gordon has just been appointed his group’s whip, in charge of party discipline and ensuring his party colleagues vote the correct way in whipped committees. So it was with some surprise that when he proposed a motion at this week’s planning meeting that the convener, fellow SNP councillor Neil Gardiner, voted against him. Oops ... whip’s office, now, Cllr Gardiner.
Preventing children Some mistake, surely part 2. This week Edinburgh council chief executive Andrew Kerr announced in an internal email to councillors that he had been appointed as the Scottish trustee for the National Society for the Prevention of Children UK. Sounded a bit hardline, but of course his role is not that of the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or a sworn enemy of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, but working with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Phew ...
Tory chump does Bodyguard impression Sadly, no mistake. Cringeworthy moment of the Conservative party conference had to be Aberdeen South MP Ross Thomson’s attempt to emulate the Bodyguard by hugging Boris Johnson through the throng as if Lee Harvey Oswald was in a nearby book depository. Even arch Brexiteers thought he made a chump of himself.