Show me a high tech cluster and I’ll show you a PR department brainstorming ways to piggyback on it for press. That’s what appeared to have happened a few months ago as the notoriously gobby broadband PR department at Virgin Media announced that the Silicon Roundabout would be getting its very own 1.5Gb broadband connection.
In fact, just four businesses in the Old Street area got the, admittedly gut-wrenchingly fast, connection and it was on a trial basis.
So although the businesses commented that the faster broadband was a big boost to productivity, allowing instant video conferencing with a number of international partners in one case, the fact that it was a trial made the service a little less than reliable.
“Since it is a test service it does have its disappointing days,” one of the business owners told V3 magazine.
“With a little more work Virgin could manage to keep the speeds consistently at their highest and the whole package will be like something out of a dream.”
The silicon roundabout example, then, just shows that managing networks effectively is just as important as deploying infrastructure in the first place, especially for business users.
No matter whether business users are getting the UK’s bog-standard 7Mbish deals, about 39Mb with BT Infinity or more like 49Mb with Virgin Media XXL (these averages all taken from the last Ofcom report) choosing an Internet Service Provider that can offer a reliable service aces those offering speed without substance.
More broadly, the experiences of businesses in the Silicon Roundabout touch on a basic truth of UK broadband provision: providers have been remarkably slow to bring broadband upgrades to the country’s start-up hubs.
In November last year, David Cameron made it sound as though BT had been dragged kicking and screaming into supplying the area with their fibre broadband (although, ever the PR man, who knows how much truth is behind that insinuation).
Just look at Cambridge’s own ‘Silicon Fen’.
Like most medium sized towns the main Cambridge telephone exchange is on the list for an upgrade up to 40Mb but on the outskirts coverage is patchy.
The Cherry Hinton exchange, for example, which supplies ARM holdings ltd – perhaps the fen’s most well known business – has no coverage at all from Virgin Media cable services and no BT Infinity FTTC (fibre-to-the-cabinet) either.
Given that superfast broadband is frequently touted as a kind of business miracle-gro, the fact that one tiny area of Cambridge has spawned some of the UK’s most profitable tech start-ups without any superfast broadband is surely significant.
Like the actual Silicon Valley, the Silicon Fen’s success has grown partially from the town’s supportive university departments, which have formed a microcosm of innovation in the local area, fostering initial research and directing it in to production.
Government plans for upgrading broadband throughout the UK and developing areas of technological innovation use the same language: chuck money at it and hope it sticks. As usual, turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that.