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Forget High Speed 2: what Britain needs is high-speed broadband.

Image of Train tracks (more for less)

Policy Innovation Blog

Forget High Speed 2: what Britain needs is high-speed broadband

Stian Westlake - 16.05.2013

Today the NAO found that the economic benefits of HS2, the beleaguered high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham, aren't all they're cracked up to be.

It's time to scrap this daft boondoggle and invest in the infrastructure of the future instead: that means super-fast broadband.

By super-fast broadband I mean nothing less than fibre-to-the-home, 1000 Mbps symmetrical broadband, the kind of thing that will make down- and uploading videos trivial, that'll make telepresence and cloud computing ubiquitous, and that will open up a whole host of technological opportunities no-one has even though of yet. There are a few reasons why super-fast broadband is a much better bet than a few slightly faster trains.

It's cheaper. HS2 is now expected to cost a mindboggling £33bn. (For this much money, you could buy the US's entire Nimitz-class aircraft carrier fleet, if you felt so inclined.) The most expensive estimates for UK-wide FTTH deployment come it at £5 billion less, so with the change you could buy ten good-sized district general hospitals. And clever local solutions like Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) offer ways of making this much, much cheaper.

The benefits will be bigger. The benefits of a faster rail connection to Birmingham and points north can be modelled: we have a train line already, so it's essentially a case of more of the same (and maybe even less, if you believe self-driving car advocates like Allister Heath). But when you massively increase the speed of a connection (we're talking here about connection speeds 80 times the current UK average), impressive things happen. Just as dial-up internet gave us totally new applications like email and search, and broadband gave us social networking, YouTube and iPlayer, we could expect superfast broadband to generate amazing new uses (If you doubt that the internet does anything for GDP, read this good piece from the Economist.) The brainiacs at Google are certainly betting on this, and are deploying 1000Mbps fibre connections in a growing number of US cities.

It'll deliver the goods quicker. The first HS2 trains will run in, get this, 2026. That's assuming there are no delays, which as we know, happen from, er, time to time in public engineering projects. Until then, the project is just so many hard hats and hoardings. I honestly can't tell you how long wiring the whole of the UK with super-fast broadband will take, but I doubt it'll take 13 years. More importantly, it's a gradual project. You connect neighbourhood by neighbourhood, home by home. This means that people start benefitting in year 1 of the project as the first homes are wired up, not in year 13 when the red signal outside Euston finally turns green.

It could well do more to stimulate the economy. The other benefit that people hope for from infrastructure investment is that it'll get more money into workers' pockets and then into the wider economy. Hence the talk of "Keynesian multipliers". The key here is making sure that as much of the money that goes on an infrastructure project swashes around the UK economy, rather than being stuck in the bank or sent overseas to buy parts. I won't pretend I've done the maths, but a lot of the cost of fibre deployment pays for digging up roads and laying cable, rather than super-high-precision railway engineering or buying expensive signalling kit. So it may be that the short-term stimulus from SF broadband is greater than that of HS2.

It can be more human-scale. Finally, there's the question of scale. HS2 is a mega-project, and it stands or fails as a unit. This is fine if all goes well, but we all know what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men. SF broadband could be built on a much more human scale. Let me mention again the inspirational team at B4RN, a plucky cooperative from the wilds of Lancashire who clubbed together to build their own fibre network for a fraction of the cost and the bureaucracy that a BT or Virgin roll-out would have involved. I'd rather fund ten thousand B4RNs, and encourage some experiment and competition and community spirit, than trust thirty-three billion smackers to which band of contractors manage to win a government tender process (and we all know how well those can go, don't we?)

Superfast broadband is the infrastructure of the twenty-first century. Trains are the infrastructure of the nineteenth. It's time for the Government to get with the programme.