Technology leap frogging

I attended an excellent presentation at a BVI Chamber of Commerce luncheon recently. One of the topics addressed was the requirement to upgrade infrastructure in the British Virgin Islands, notably internet speeds.

During the Q&A session at the end, there were comments about the fact that the best internet download speeds achievable in the BVI are around 5Mbps, the average being typically less than 1MBps. Presently the fastest speeds are in South Korea, achieving an average of 22.2 Mbps. This was rightly cited as an area for immediate improvement in the BVI, and the need to catch up to retain competitiveness.

I would like to propose a reframing of this vision from catch-up to leap-frog, not least because the BVI is chasing a moving target. I was reminded of the several occasions I spent on business in East and West Africa around ten years ago.

African Leap-Frogs

Africa is a developing continent, but on my first visits to nations in the Eat and West I was filled with admiration with their telecommunications infrastructure. Whilst the major cities and towns enjoyed land-line telephone access (to an extent), once you travelled outside them into the bush almost no such infrastructure existed. This struck me as a major challenge, but I quickly realised that was not the case.

With the advent of mobile (cell) telephones, the infrastructure focus was simply on setting up relay stations with masts and independent power across the countries.

Solar-powered mobile base station in Niger

So all people needed was a mobile (cell) phone and they had communication in place. Furthermore, I was struck by the quality of the networks.

On an 8 hour drive from Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) due West into the interior I did not lose cell-phone coverage once. In fact there were only a couple of occasions where the signal dropped from 5 bars (and then only down to 4). At the time there were still large swathes of the United Kingdom that did not have mobile phone coverage. (My phone still dropped out on a section of the A1 motorway during a recent visit).

This was a perfect example of technology leap-frog. Instead of applying a traditional solution to the problem, African nations embraced the latest technology and deployed it to excellent effect. So-called developed nations would do well to follow this example.

UK leap-frogs (or not)

Opportunities abound. Take the High-Speed Two (HST) rail link in the UK; this has been a political football for twenty years and is still being debated and contested. Whilst the arguments continue, the existing rail infrastructure – some of which is built on lines opened in 1850 (yes 165 years ago) – is crumbling.

In my view the debate is moot; new rail links are required, so let’s get on with it. The real argument should be about what technology to deploy.

The UK has the slowest inter-city rail links in Western Europe. When HS2 commences in 2025 it will still be slowest.

The first HST link is due to open in 2025; the train designs are not confirmed but they will be a Eurostar/TGV/Shinkansen standard, achieving 250 kph (woohoo!). Is this better than what presently exists in Britain? Certainly. But 600 kph train technology exists today and is being implemented across the Far East. Imagine what will be available in ten years time (take a look at Elon Musk’s plans here). The UK is missing a huge opportunity to make a technology leap-frog in my view.

BVI Leap Frogs – the opportunity

Which brings me back to my start point – internet speeds in the BVI. The world record for internet speed is presently held by BT in the UK, who in January 2014 achieved a speed of 1.4 terabits per second (1,400,000 Mbps). Although this was an R&D test, what was notable was they achieved this on a standard optical fibre network – the same kind of fibre that is presently being laid in the BVI.

So in the not-to-distant future the UK and Europe will be able to easily achieve 1000Mbps speeds – 200 times faster than the present best speeds in the BVI.

So, the technology exists – let’s use it. Let’s set our sights on 1,000Mbps plus in the BVI and leap frog the Caribbean and the global offshore jurisdictions.

In fact, let’s leap frog the rest of the world.