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Alan Fletcher

Alan Fletcher, Business Development Manager at KMi, part of The Open University

With the Government and OFCOM in agreement that investment in full fibre infrastructure is essential to the future of the UK economy, our latest guest blog from Alan Fletcher, Business Development Manager at KMi, part of The Open University, draws parallels between the current ‘Digital Revolution’ and our industrial past to ask what we can learn from our Victorian pioneers?

To be fair, it’s not just the Victorians we can learn from. The much longer period from 1700 to 1870 (starting some 137 years before Victoria came to the throne) saw fundamental economic and societal changes that we now refer to as the Industrial Revolution and the Transport Revolution. Okay, so 170 years is a long time and you should expect to see some changes over that period, right? Actually, there are pockets of rapid (given the available technology) expansion during the period in question which evidence mass adoption and significant investment in change, over much shorter periods of time.

In 1700 there was a very rough road and cart-track transport infrastructure and the cost of moving goods meant that economic activity was more localised. Canals in Britain were the first mass transit solution for the movement of goods. Between 1760 to 1800 over 150 Canal Acts were passed.

Steam locomotion on railways provided significant improvement in the speed and volume of transit as well as the reach of the network. The first public locomotive drawn railway opened in 1825. By the End of the 1840s the network had experienced its most rapid decade of growth.

Canals and Railways were each, in turn, vital to the expansion of industrial technology and economic growth. Combined, these pockets of rapid expansion contributed to major shifts in the economic and societal make up of Britain from the ability to innovate in industry to the growth of urban developments and they share a common purpose – the provision of infrastructure used to transport goods which are transformed into wealth.

I think one of the most telling facts of the period is that between 1700 and 1870 freight charges decreased by 95 percent in real terms, predominantly because of canals and railways.

Without the provision of infrastructure in this way, industrial innovation in Britain may well have been confined to a small blacksmith’s forge in a Shropshire valley, hardly what you would call a revolution.

At the end of the Victorian period came the game changing innovation for the transport infrastructure – the internal combustion engine. The exponential growth of road and air transport really has changed the way individuals can explore the world and industry can operate across territories.

So, it’s easy to draw comparisons between previous Industrial/Transport Revolutions and the Digital Revolution of the 21st Century. We need an infrastructure that operates across multiple terrains, has the capability to transport ever increasing volumes of digital traffic and can provide interoperability to the diverse needs of all its users.

Much like the pockets of change in the Industrial Revolution, we have previously built communication networks using the best available technology of the time that have moved from private to public and now back to private ownership. Some of those networks are still flourishing and others are irrelevant to modern communication needs.

But the most exciting innovation in our Digital Revolution is the provision of end to end high speed fibre. Imagine the M25 without traffic jams, a train without delays or the wrong type of snow on the line, a budget airline flight that encourages you to take extra hand luggage for free. High speed end to end fibre is offering the equivalence of these services to the digital infrastructure.

At the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute in Milton Keynes we have been engaged in data science research for over 20 years. We operate at the forefront of research in the development of digital technology and services from the evolution of the semantic web to the development of the global Smart City Movement, including MK:Smart, the MK Data Hub, 5G and the emergence of Blockchain as an enabling technology.

Our work has been made easier by the development of Milton Keynes as a Gigabit City and the University connection to the CityFibre network. Having access to reliable, fast and significant bandwidth means we can operate with global partners in the exchange of vast amounts of data and deliver global services to the research community such as core.ac.uk.

I am sure that over the next 170 years there will be more pockets of rapid change and development but I am confident that end to end high speed fibre will still, very much like the water, rail, road and air networks, remain a vital part of the global infrastructure needed to transport the digital goods which can be transformed into wealth.

Alan is also a member of the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for Smart Cities, a member of the Smart City advisory group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, an executive member of the MK:Smart project and a regular speaker at conferences.

Have your say!

Do you think The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s plans laid out in the ‘Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review’ will enable the Government to achieve its ambitious target of getting every UK home and premises connected by full fibre by 2033?

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