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Londoners have been sold a pup when it comes to digital infrastructure. The capital has awful broadband speeds (it’s actually ‘narrow’ rather than ‘broad’ band), and the public and private wireless connections available to its residents are frankly shameful. To put it more simply, the market has failed Londoners when it comes to digital connectivity.
As a founder of the Oxford Internet Institute and a former chair of the All Party Parliamentary Communications Group, I’ve had a long-standing interest in how the internet and digital connections can make a difference to our day-to-day lives. So last year, at an event with the think tank Foundation for Information Society Policy (FISP), I pondered what should to be done to improve London’s digital infrastructures.
The possibilities are endless. For example, we could have a health app which carried all our x-rays, prescriptions, appointments, allergies, travel inoculation history, operations with dates and family disease chart, and critical phone numbers for our GP and consultants.
Better digital infrastructure could have also have massive implications for education. I believe that school students should have access to a GCSE app for every subject, along with videos of the best teachers explaining key parts of the curriculum. Every exam paper over the past five years and every critical text book should be made available electronically for free. Most of all, a Raspberry Pi should be made available to every student and every pensioner in London for £30 a pop.
However, even if the Mayor of London shared my vision, the reality is that we do not have the digital infrastructure in place to deliver it. That is because the current broadband providers have an unhealthy monopoly, which is badly damaging London’s reputation as a leading global city, and which could result in the capital waiting two generations before becoming a 20 gigabit city (meaning that all homes and businesses would have download and upload speeds of 20,000 megabits per second).
But there is another way. In recent weeks, I have teamed up with FISP to call on the next Mayor of London to create a new infrastructure agency, Digital for Londoners, dedicated to ensuring the capital has the digital infrastructure it needs to thrive in the future.
Our city needs to be always on. Increasingly, we are working at home, more of us have two jobs, some of us have to work shifts to provide a 24/7 NHS or a 24/7 global business base. The way we work and play is changing. London has to be on top of these trends not following them, but it is already woefully behind.
The implications will affect the private sector as much as individual consumers. Without a 20 gigabit offering by 2020, London’s financial sector will fall behind New York, Seoul, Beijing, Singapore, Frankfurt and even Chattanooga. We are more and more dependent on the skill-sets and legacies we have in finance for the continuing wealth of the nation. Coming second, third or fourth will seriously disrupt our tax base.
There are a number of models this could be based on – it could be a not-for profit company like Transport for London, a municipal authority such as that created by Joe Chamberlain as Mayor of Birmingham 140 years ago, or even a charity or a cooperative on the John Lewis lines. But regardless of the model, it is essential that this kind of body is created for Londoners.
I hear the cries from the right, asking how this would be funded. But there are a range of options available, including a London lottery scheme, a London spectrum auction, a London monthly addition on our council taxes (similar to those used to fund the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics), a top up either on Oyster card fees or the Congestion Charge (we have much greater congestion online) or finally a London allowance on stamp duty. We must not be defeatist – we can find a way.
Boris Johnson has missed a golden opportunity to address these issues in his time as Mayor, and the debates and positioning by the current candidates has been terribly disappointing – it is as if they too do not realise how vital improving digital infrastructure will be to London’s future. It’s time to wake up to the need for Digital for Londoners – the battle for a 20 Gigabit City has begun.
Derek Wyatt is the former MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and a founder of the Oxford Internet Institute
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