4G mobile broadband will not be a fast track to progress
THE DEATH of 3G has been greatly exaggerated. Or, more specifically, the long-heralded, glorious arrival of high-speed, high-bandwidth 4G mobile networks has been excessively hyped.
I know this may come as a shock to anyone who follows developments in the technology world, where no astonishing new software programme, no phenomenal debut service and no thrilling piece of fresh hardware has had its global significance or its role in changing the universe overstated.
But brace yourselves. For, after years of promises about how groundbreaking 4G will be – and breathlessness on the part of the UK government, which predicted a surge of economic growth on the back of the first 4G network, launched there this week – a report says such claims, and the timescales predicted, are, ahem, overly exaggerated.
Superfast Britain? Myths and Realities about the UK’s Broadband Future, a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit published on Tuesday (available at iti.ms/QUg9C6), says the jobs growth and economic and societal dividends predicted for 4G need “a dose of reality”.
The incandescent future promised, which would enable download speeds about 10 times faster than 3G, includes potentially transformed government services, healthcare and education, a lickety-split world of fast-download entertainment and new opportunities for rural regions because location won’t matter any more. Whole new industries will emerge, jobs will grow and entrepreneurs will dance a jig.
I remember being told the same about 3G a decade ago, yet we are still not using many of the services predicted by equipment and network providers, despite the fact that Ireland, according to the report, is the fourth largest market for 3G take-up per capita in the EU, slightly trailing the Nordics. For that matter, I attended meetings in the 1990s and early 2000s at which the introduction of basic home and work broadband access in Ireland was expected to do all that too, and swiftly.
Yet that future has not arrived and we still have all sorts of digital divides. This is not to downplay the revolutionary role of internet access and the leap in possibilities brought by broadband versus dial-up modem access.
The report provides data on the importance of broadband to GDP growth. Thanks to the internet, the UK had 11 per cent growth in GDP between 1995 and 2009, and 23 per cent growth between 2004 and 2009. Sweden had 15 and 33 per cent respectively. The US had 8 and 15 per cent. The larger, latter surge aligns with the growth of broadband.
The report notes that the rush of change that came with the move from dial-up to broadband is unlikely to be duplicated again by an increase in speed, no matter how big.
“For many anticipated benefits, it is less a case of the pipe needing to change and more that of established systems, processes and skills needing to evolve. This applies across a range of sectors, including healthcare and education,” it said.
Governments should know this without having to be told to restrain their hype about 4G (which we won’t see here until sometime next year), as this has been the case for the past decade during the spread of broadband.
Setting aside the Revenue Online Service, long a model internationally, in Ireland we have more government technology projects famous for failing spectacularly or dying slowly than for improving service delivery.
Another caveat in the report is apropos here too: “In many areas, but especially within business, a shortage of skills is at least as big a hindrance to putting technology to good use as constraints on bandwidth.”
Overall, the report’s message is that change, economic growth and new jobs will indeed come over time with 4G, but expect a gradual shift, not a fast-return payback.
Plus ça change. I’m reminded of an interview I did with a technology pioneer from Bell Labs more than a decade ago.
He dismissed the then-popular notion of “internet time” – we were supposed to rethink how fast things can change due to the supposedly astonishing speed of “internet time”. Nonsense, he said. Internet time is like regular time: it takes about a decade for people to get used to a major technological shift, and the full impact isn’t felt until then.
This seems about right – and aligns with the predictions that 4G is not going to provide an economic bonanza in the next couple of years, any more than 3G or landline broadband did upon their introduction.