One of my CityFibre colleagues recently discovered this ancient marketing collateral from BT’s predecessor company, wedged inside a paperback he had bought in a used book shop. Incredibly well-preserved despite being the best part of 40 years old, it provoked amused smiles and a moment of nostalgia from those of us in the office old enough to remember national trunk calling and the quaint age of futuristic rotary dial “luxury extension phones.” The younger amongst us looked on in silent incomprehension, particularly when we began talking about party lines – a phenomenon once so common that The Kinks recorded a song
Apart from the entertainment it gave us at the time, this discovery provided an opportune moment to reflect on the more serious issue of technology evolution and the ever-changing expectations of the consumer. If there is a single universal truth in the telecoms and technology world, it is that the direction of change may be easy to predict, but its specific details, timing and ultimate extent, are invariably beyond the grasp of even the greatest clairvoyant. History is littered with the carcasses of companies which got it spectacularly wrong, as I cover in some detail in this talk
from NextGen Manchester three years ago – my favourite quote being the confident assertion from Western Union that the telephone had no practical value.
Not only was Western Union entirely and catastrophically wrong – the telephone revolutionized modern life irrevocably through the highly practical application of real-time voice communication – the company would have been even less likely to see that the telephone network could one day form the basis for a more profound change in the way all information is transmitted, stored, manipulated, shared, and analyzed. Thus, infrastructure constructed for one very specific, though important, purpose saw its value enhanced exponentially through the development of the internet, an entirely unforeseen turn of events during the time of its initial deployment.
While Britons in the early 1970s would have been only too aware of the extortionate cost of making a trunk call during peak hours, and many undoubtedly dreamt of that “luxury extension phone” seemingly forever beyond their grasp, fast forward to today, and we’ve passed through universal fixed telephony, now in terminal decline, and into an age of ubiquitous mobile connectivity. Yet even with the benefit of closer proximity to the present, there have still been some stunningly bad predictions about the level of adoption which new product sets are likely to see.
While a City analyst years ago, I once found myself in possession of some Goldman Sachs research from the time of the Orange initial public offering, in 1996. My recollection from reading it is that the smartest guys in the room were forecasting a ten year mobile penetration rate of 25% for the UK market, which was wrong by a factor of five. The point of all this is to underline that consumer expectations can change in dramatic and unpredictable ways, and, coupled with innovation, can unleash waves of rapid and dramatic change, with significant long-term ramifications. We believe it is self-evident that only broadband infrastructure without any inherent limitations in capacity is capable of weathering whatever these forces of change may throw our way.
With the impending disruption to London caused by the rapidly approaching Olympics, a number of businesses have decided that it makes more sense for their employees to work from home for the duration, rather than struggle with pointless commutes, and now large parts of the Civil Service are to follow suit
. This could constitute a watershed moment in UK history – one in which tens of thousands of people accustomed to 100Mbps symmetrical LANs in the office, often hooked into fat pipes out to the internet, confront the ugly truth about broadband connectivity in the majority of UK homes, and begin to realize that this stuff is actually important. With a bit of luck, and a lot of investment from innovative new companies committed to changing the status quo, in another forty years, someone in an office somewhere may unearth some marketing collateral for the “superfast broadband” offerings of today and ask himself how the hell people ever tolerated such primitive connectivity.
James Enck - Corporate Development - CityFibre