The early construction phase of HS2 can bring fibre broadband to rural communities along the route. Internet access is vital for modern construction workers – it speeds up work and tackles problems. HS2 runs through areas with terrible rural broadband and weak mobile phones. If HS2 lays fibre to connect contractors as part of its very earliest work it can then provide access to this fibre for communities it passes. This brings fibre backhaul, critical for local broadband to remote rural communities in a swathe 10km or more either side of the route. For the first time hundreds or even a thousand places will be able to connect at modern superfast speeds. HS2 could even contract a small telco (an altnet) to provide a service at a discount yet still profitably to passed communities to help offset their loss of amenity. When the track is live in the distant future, the service could be transferred to run on the signalling or communications fibre. HS2 could just get on with this as a community benefit without engaging Whitehall and BDUK.
The HS2 route cuts through the English countryside. Benefits from HS2, apart from to the café and hotel trade for construction workers are 20 years distant. The countryside is short of decent superfast broadband and often has terrible mobile phone signals with no data.
The HS2 construction teams will require connectivity back to their offices both for mundane business tasks and more esoteric stuff like transmitting hi res plans, controlling networked equipment, security and the all pervading SCADA. Precision, efficient grading of the sort needed for high speed track is now an astonishingly sophisticated data business. With hundreds of workers on site, if contractors have to download data over GPRS the whole thing will grind to halt. Or even worse contractors could pay Openreach to use ‘spare lines’ in rural cabinets and actually reduce available capacity for local communities. Later the railway will need connectivity to signal the trains and its staff. It is normal practice for any train line to have multiple fibre cables running alongside the track.
At a strategic level, it appears a no-brainer for HS2 to lay some fibre along the route as a very early construction task and provide wifi for the construction gangs. This fibre can then also be used for community broadband (either by using a different colour laser or as is normal to lay more than one fibre core in a cable).
To break out to the communities, a simple option would be providing at regular points along the route an interconnection point (a gigabit ethernet port or fibre in a box at the edge of the construction strip) and a power supply for communities to connect their own local networks. And offer free or heavily subsidised backhaul for the communities. In many cases they will be happy to pay a near commercial rate – it’s physical access to backhaul as much as cost that is the challenge in rural areas.
However, effective community work isn’t based on ‘build it and they will come’. Although some outstanding communities can provide their own fibre services most can’t summon the local human capital. A pragmatic and profitable option would be to use HS2s telecoms subcontractors to provide and fit broadband into villages along the route using a cheap and quick to deploy technology like microwave radio (5Ghz can deliver 25Mbs without needing to dig) that links back to the HS2 route’s fibre. Or even provide fibre connectivity itself, given that HS2 has some unusually long times over which to amortise investment. And they will have plenty of digging machinery on site.
If the capital costs of the backhaul fibre are covered by the main railway construction project then a microwave approach would easily be profitable in the short term and cheap for the communities. Microwave would enable you to link on a line of sight from the route of 10-15 miles. This swathe should number hundreds, possibly a thousand communities.
If HS2 just got on and did this, as something to provide precious offsetting amenity to communities who will be living next to a building site for up to 20 years, then it wouldn’t have to get enmeshed in Whitehall ‘joined up thinking’. But could offer it as a distinctive sweetener at start of work. My only caveat would be that if Openreach are the communications sub contractor for HS2 then it all gets messy. But I find it hard to believe that anyone would award Openreach a contract on this scale given their conspicuous lack of capacity right now. For the government’s broadband plans this would be putting some flesh on the bones of the Cabinet Office’s Spring publication on re-using public infrastructure.
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