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The superfast and the furious

10 January 2013

This intriguing title to a report published by think tank, Policy Exchange, addresses current aspirations for the UK's Internet infrastructure. But is 'fast' the only target we should be aiming for?

Policy Exchange’s latest report argues that politicians have become overly focused on broadband speeds. The Internet is central to modern life, and next generation fixed and mobile broadband are unquestionably vitally important for the economy. But the case for spending any more taxpayers' money to subsidise very fast connectivity is weak, say the authors.

The report suggests an end to government subsidies for broadband infrastructure once current commitments are reached in 2015, with more focus on helping the 10.8 million people not online - half of whom are over 65. Of the 2,000 people and 500 businesses polled by Ipsos MORI on behalf of Policy Exchange only a third of people (31 percent) are confident they could choose the best broadband deal for their household. Overall, price and reliability matter to people as much as speed.

Two thirds of people (64 percent) think that good basic broadband coverage for the whole country is more important than chasing very fast speeds in some areas at the expense of others, and four in five people (79 percent) think that every household should be able to have access to the internet. However, only a quarter (24 percent) think it is fair for people in remote areas to pay more.

People are split (49 percent versus 49 percent) on whether it is more important to invest in connectivity, even if it means more masts and street cabinets, or to preserve neighbourhoods and the environment, even if this constrains broadband speeds and coverage. The vast majority of small businesses have a web presence (79 percent) but still only a minority are ready to take bookings (34 percent) or accept payments (36 percent) online.

The report urges the government to see out its current spending plans to extend superfast fixed broadband to 90 per cent of the country, to accelerate the roll out of 4G wireless networks, and to deliver on the 2Mbps universal service commitment for 2015.

But once this programme is completed, Policy Exchange believes the priority for any further use of taxpayers' money must be on empowering consumers and businesses to make best use of the Internet. The authors argue that, combined with a relentless focus on effective, sustainable competition, this will ensure that supply and demand are free to drive the private sector broadband investment and innovation that people want.

Commenting on the report, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) says that while speed is important, the government must also ensure that extensive coverage is available. Professor Will Stewart, who chairs the IET Communications Policy Panel, says superfast and extensive coverage are not alternatives and both can be - and should be - achieved. He says the key is getting new infrastructure, particularly fibre, close to the user, though he concedes that achieving this will be expensive. "Once that infrastructure is in place it can also carry superfast as well as 'ordinary' broadband, and should not need renewal again for a generation at least,” he adds.

Figures show that Internet use amongst all age groups continues to grow, and while Internet usage is lower for those over 65, this effect is rapidly disappearing. According to the latest Ofcom research (July 2012), two-thirds of 65-74 year-olds now have home Internet access, the largest rise among all age groups, and the proportion of adults aged 65 to 74 with home Internet access rose by nine percentage points to 64 percent between 2011 and 2012.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, the Internet economy accounts for over 8 percent of UK GDP, a higher share than any other country in the G20. It is forecast to rise to over 12 percent by 2016, with the Internet now accounting for around a quarter of our economic growth, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

Waste not, want not
A rather more disturbing report on quite another subject emerged from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) on Thursday (January 10). Global Food Waste Not Want Not, revealed the startling statistic that 50 percent of all food produced in the world ends up as waste.

Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment at the IMechE says the amount of food wasted and lost around the world is "staggering". "This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population – as well as those in hunger today," he adds. "It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food."

Dr Fox gives several reasons for this situation, ranging from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one free offers.

“As water, land and energy resources come under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers have a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods," he says. “But in order for this to happen governments, development agencies and organisations like the UN must work together to help change people’s mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers.”

By 2075 the UN predicts that the world’s population is set to reach around 9.5 billion, which could mean an extra three billion mouths to feed. A key issue to dealing with this population growth is how to produce more food in a world with resources under competing pressures – particularly given the added stresses caused by global warming and the increasing popularity of eating meat – which requires around ten times the land resources of food like rice or potatoes.

The world produces about four billion metric tonnes of food per year, but wastes up to half of this food through poor practices and inadequate infrastructure. By improving processes and infrastructure as well as changing consumer mindsets, we would have the ability to provide 60-100% more food to feed the world’s growing population.

Les Hunt

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