Mark Casci: North cannot be left behind when it comes to digital infrastructure

Cables link servers (Photo credit PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Cables link servers (Photo credit PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)
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Infrastructure is perhaps the most commonly discussed source of frustration for British business.

When it is raised it usually refers to the unacceptable and sub-standard nature of our transport network, what is far less frequently discussed is our digital infrastructure.

Trader Andrew Stavros reacts after the close of trading in the NASDAQ. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Trader Andrew Stavros reacts after the close of trading in the NASDAQ. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

In the modern world, access to decent digital connectivity should be considered as important a utility as water and electricity.

It is essential for children doing their homework. Virtually all aspects of modern life, from paying a bill to registering to vote can be handled quickly through the web. And for businesses, it is a crucial factor in the ability to successfully compete.

In Michael Lewis’s excellent book Flash Boys he details the extraordinary lengths traders went to in order to gain a communications advantage over its rivals.

In particular he outlines a $300m construction of an 827-mile cable through mountains and rivers from Chicago to New Jersey - all with the aim of reducing the transmission time for data from 17 to 13 milliseconds for one trading firm.

A mixed picture - Not everywhere in Harrogate or the Harrogate district is blessed with the fibre optic cables and infrastructure required for good broadband.

A mixed picture - Not everywhere in Harrogate or the Harrogate district is blessed with the fibre optic cables and infrastructure required for good broadband.

The investment was needed to connect the information coming out of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to Carteret in New Jersey home to the Nasdaq data centre. The investment paid off, giving Spread Networks, the firm behind the scheme, the edge over competing firms.

This is one large-scale example of the importance of connectivity but it covers the whole gamut of sectors, from large commodity traders to one-man band retailers to farmers looking to file their subsidy claims.

Over the weekend we faced a stark warning from civic leaders in the North on this very issue. In an open letter, more than 20 town and city leaders warned that the welcome wave of private investment in our digital infrastructure could be undermined.

Their concern surrounded the outcome if two or more full fibre networks are built in the same locations, something they warned could double disruption, while other parts of the North risk missing out altogether.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, who organised the letter, has called on Government to deliver full fibre to the premises (FTTP) to every business and home in the top 30 Northern towns and cities by 2025.

The report claimed that 50 per cent full fibre coverage across the Northern Powerhouse would be worth £26.2bn to the economy. For context this figure is not far away from the total value of the UK’s aerospace exports in 2013. The value rises to £47.2bn with 90 per cent coverage, something that could provide additional GVA ranges from £122.4m in Halifax to £5.2bn in Leeds.

In response to this threat, the leaders are calling on infrastructure providers to ensure that the maximum possible coverage is delivered in the shortest possible time.

This makes total sense and is a practical and straight-forward improvement that Whitehall could rubber stamp to allow our Northern economies to flourish and help rebalance the economy.

The road to devolution has been a hard-fought one in Yorkshire and is, as regular readers of this column will know, a source of considerable frustration for myself.

The news that an accord has been reached in South Yorkshire over its stalled deal is absolutely tremendous news, and testimony to the pragmatism of its leaders.

The agreement they have reached will now need to be approved by government, meaning once again that decisions over Yorkshire sovereignty must be approved by London-based individuals.

However this breakthrough follows months of disagreement and deadlock.

That leaders have been able to reach a consensus means that the huge opportunities that devolution brings could hopefully soon be seen in our region.

And, as Parliament continues to snap at each others throats over Brexit, and our departure from the EU more uncertain than ever, it is agreeable to see politicians agreeing for a change to pursue a path leading towards a common goal.