Guernsey's digital strategy update: my view

· by Steve · Read in about 13 min · (2685 Words)

Aside: I’ve decided in future to share my thoughts on local issues primarily through my blog rather than doing media interviews, for a number of reasons. I’m better at writing than I am at speaking, and I’m not as comfortable with the reactive, off-the-cuff and time-limited style that I’m forced to adopt when doing interviews. Sharing here on my blog I get to say what I want to say, at my own speed and in the way I intended, without someone else driving the direction of the discussion or editing my responses. This is how I’m going to do things in future; it’s not because I think the media has misrepresented me (they haven’t) or that I don’t want to deal with them (I do, they’re nice people), but because I think the limitations of air time and column inches don’t suit what I want to say most of the time.

In last week’s episode…

Last week I was invited to do a radio interview on BBC Radio Guernsey to discuss my view that Guernsey is falling behind Jersey when it comes to progress on digital strategies. My points were basically these:

  1. We all appreciate the efforts of Deputy Kevin Stewart, Minister of Commerce and Employment. He genuinely seems to understand where we need to go in future and we’re glad he’s promoting that in government.
  2. Jersey have had a long road to where they are now too, and it certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing, nor is everything perfect (connection issues and disappointing upload rates being issues I hear about a lot).
  3. Having said all that, over the last year Jersey has managed to get more people connected to fibre in their homes & businesses, and has opened the Digital Jersey Hub. These represent tangible progress which although not the end point is very encouraging for our sister isle.
  4. In contrast, here in Guernsey we’re still mostly just talking strategy, and we don’t hear a lot publicly about what sort of timescales we’re expecting to get started on action. Again, I tried to make clear in the interview that I don’t want to bash people like Kevin Stewart’s efforts because I appreciate them, just that time is ticking along and we’re all eager to find out when we can expect concrete actions to start kicking in.

The twist

Now, as it turned out the day after I did that interview, Commerce & Employment released a 6-month update to the Economic Development Framework, which included the digital ‘work streams’. Had I known this was going to appear the day after I probably would have turned down the radio interview request until I’d seen it, but there we are. Kevin Stewart went on radio the day after me and said there was ‘no evidence’ that Guernsey was behind Jersey, although I would point to the above as being fairly obviously evidence. After all, which jurisdiction can I walk into a startup hub tomorrow, or get fibre to my house in at least some areas? He also said that 3 years ago an Oxford Economics report rated us either equal or slightly ahead of Jersey, but 3 years is a long time and Jersey is already started on the implementation phases in the mean time, so I think that view is outdated. Still, again I don’t want to bash Kevin here - I really do appreciate that there’s a ton of work to do and I’m glad he’s doing it - but I do think there’s a danger of trying to spin this too much such that it becomes an outright denial of reality.

So now that I’ve read the update that finally appeared on the gov.gg website, what do I think?

Well, there’s clearly good news and bad news here. To avoid further accusations of negativity, let’s do the good news first.

The Good News

  1. Digital Innovation Centre. Not just a startup hub & co-working space, but a training centre. This sounds good if it’s done well - it has a 2015 target and will apparently be before the States in more detail in the next month. I look forward to seeing the details and this could be a very good thing indeed. I look forward to getting involved, perhaps as a mentor in due course.
  2. Broadband sampling. Not in this report but apparently a third party who did research for Ofcom has been surveying local broadband with a view to making recommendations. I heard later that it covers only 20 properties though, so I hope that’s enough to get a reasonable view. Broadband in Guernsey varies wildly for such a small area, from full VDSL2 if you’re lucky to be close to an MSAN (and bizarrely my friends out in St Peters seem to be the best off here), to a poor ADSL2 service if you’re not (like South St Peter Port or Cobo, the 2 places I’ve lived this year). Nevertheless, I consider it a positive that real statistical data is being collected and it’s by an independent party from the telcos.
  3. It’s honest. It doesn’t deny that in terms of the infrastructure component of the digital work streams, things are behind and almost everyone is disappointed & frustrated with that. This might sound like a bad thing - well, the situation itself is but the admission of it I take as a positive. I get concerned sometimes that at least in the public domain there’s a spin from both government and the telecom’s companies that “Everything’s fine, we’re doing great!”, and I treat that as hugely damaging. In some ways I don’t mind if we’re behind in infrastructure, so long as we admit it and therefore realise the necessity of getting our arses in gear. I hear the marketing blurb far too often from Sure et al of all the great stuff they’re doing, and yet what I actually see on the ground is a pretty terrible broadband service for 2014 in both places I’ve lived this year (both populous areas not the sticks), and when asking Sure’s planning department they tell me that no new MSANs are due for installation in either region within the next 18 months. That’s just depressing. Sorry, that became a little negative there and that’s not allowed in the Good News section. 😉 What I’m saying is that admission that we need to do better on infrastructure is good news compared to the outright denial that anything’s wrong that I see far too often. So, +1 points for that even on a lagging item.

The Bad News

  1. We’re still just talking strategy. Whilst I accept this is absolutely necessary, especially since public funds will be involved, other jurisdictions are already moving, including the one only a few miles to our south east. Everyone realises that it seems, but it doesn’t change the fact that none of us will be happy until we’re actually acting & hitting some tangible milestones. What I’d like is for people not to take this comment as negativity, but of encouragement that we’re behind getting on with this thing.
  2. Infrastructure is lagging. As I think most of us already realised, CICRA hasn’t delivered on the broadband review yet and in general this work stream is lagging & frustrating most of us. As mentioned above though, at least the update admits that & knows it’s not good enough. To be where we are and not have the data we need to even form the strategy, never mind pin dates on it and get started, is not great.
  3. Some people still don’t get it. What’s arguably more worrying is some of the reaction afterwards, for example Deputy Matt Fallaize, who commented in relation to home broadband speeds in the Guernsey Press that “I would not like to spend public money so people can play games”. I’m guessing his view is that all we have to do is get good connectivity to offices and schools and that everyone at home is just wasting time on Call Of Duty and watching Netflix so that has no value to justify spending public money. In this way, he completely misses the point of a digital economy. [edit] I’ve since had an extended email discussion with Matt, and the Press really didn’t do him justice with this soundbite. His views are considerably more nuanced than this, he’s been receptive to the points I’ve made, and while he has concerns over the spending of public money, he is willing to listen.[/edit]

What’s the big deal about infrastructure?

I still hear from some people that investing in domestic internet infrastructure is a waste of time & money, and that all we have to do is connect the main businesses, tech hubs and the schools, and people’s homes should be an afterthought.

But here’s the thing. If you’re investing in digital, the assumption is that you want to promote its use for the good of the economy. That means a number of things:

  1. Existing businesses should be able to utilise good connectivity to keep up with the evolving business landscape, which is to say increasing reliance and exploitation of technology. Not to do this is to be left behind regardless of what industry you’re in.
  2. Schools should be able to consume and publish information quickly and efficiently in order to keep up with 21st-century demands.
  3. New startup businesses should be encouraged, and a lot of those will either be in the digital sphere or rely heavily on it to disrupt less agile incumbents. Digital allows a far easier route to exporting than before where geographical constraints on a small jurisdiction put it at a disadvantage.
  4. Flexible working practices enabled by technology should allow the workforce in general to be more efficient, to work across borders, but also allow people previously excluded from being economically active due to things like care of children/family, disability etc to fit work around their lives.

The idea that only business hubs and schools need good connections only deals with half the points on this list. Startups don’t usually start in big glass office buildings, and very few of them get their beginnings even in a startup hub (although that can help them scale). The majority of startups begin in home offices, or a few people over coffee playing with some ideas and they collaborating from various locations including their homes. Apple started in a garage. Facebook started in a dorm room. My entire startup journey began at a desk in my house; I ran it from there when I had 10 users, and I still run it from there now I have hundreds of thousands. And this is how new things happen in the 21st century folks; not in board rooms or cubicle farms, but in your house.

EDIT: Diversification is often talked about. That will come about one of two ways; from existing local people switching to new industries, perhaps starting as freelancers (as I did in the 3D industry) and growing organically, or from larger external investments where people come in from outside to jump-start something. The former generally starts at home just like startups, and may even continue from there indefinitely. Projects in the digital economy increasingly collect together people from wherever they are in the world and build a functioning team from that; my own team is spread across Guernsey, San Francisco, Sydney and Portland. This is not unusual today, and we rely on our home connections to work. As for diversifying through external investment, do you really think people in digital businesses will want to come & work in Guernsey if they know their home connection is going to suck? When they can look at other jurisdictions where fibre is almost universal?

And what about kids? Sure they learn a lot at school and they need good connectivity there, but where are the hobbies and passions that end up becoming their vocation later cultivated? Partly at school, but equally if not more so at home. Kids teaching themselves programming, 3D modelling, digital art or music sequencing - they’ll be doing most of that from home. They’ll want to watch videos, experiment, collaborate with others, and develop their skills from home. These are the future geniuses that industries are built on, and you’re telling me they don’t need good internet connectivity in their house to do that? Rubbish.

The fact is neither you nor I know where the next innovations will come from. It could be from that house across the street, or it could be from your kids bedroom upstairs. You don’t know, and neither does the government. What I do know is that by not providing good connectivity to everyone, you’re lessening the chance that something like that will crop up, or you’ll at least slow it down. This is why I make such a big deal about universal access to good broadband in Guernsey; because I want anyone out there to be able to succeed, and poor broadband holds people back.

Sure, I want good broadband too, so there’s some self-interest here, but arguably I’ve already made it. I’m middle-aged, I’ve already made a bit of a name on the Internet, have had enough success to live okay, and have done it through a time where the range of poor to good broadband was more of an irritation than anything. But things are accelerating, expectations are rising and to be left behind in the next 20 years as the world economy becomes increasingly virtual will be a lot more serious than it was in the last 20. We have to keep up.

The Mindset

Complacency is a terrible thing. Guernsey has had it pretty easy over the last 30 years and people could be forgiven for thinking that things will just sort themselves out in time, and maybe for patting themselves on the back for a job well done in the past. But that’s not going to help at all in the future; the moment you think you’re ahead and you can relax is the time you get lazy & get beaned by the guy racing up from the rear. Now for whatever reason I’m the kind of guy who is never satisfied - with myself, with my work or anything else. I’m always hyper-aware that there are a ton of things I could be doing better, and I’m always trying to improve. I’m not really put off by failure, because I consider it an inevitable stepping stone to figuring out what works; I’m also not put off by criticism, because that’s information you can use to improve (even if it’s to learn which opinions to ignore ;)).

For a long time I assumed that everyone thought like this, but recently I’ve realised that this is a specific mindset, some people refer to it as a ‘growth mindset’. I beat myself up a lot about stuff that could be better, and I’m equally critical about other things I think could be better. That sometimes rubs people up the wrong way, and I realise now that it’s because not everyone is happy with that mindset, that they’d rather be talking about past successes and enjoying that positivity, rather than being pushed forward and getting down to the brass tacks of being honest about what sucks and what we do about it. I try to be a little more tactful these days, but under the hood I’m still that crotchety bastard who just wants everything to be better. It’s for the best of reasons, honest, even if I piss you off. 😉

Summary

So, I’m going to keep talking about this until it’s sorted. I know I’ll probably annoy well-intentioned people in government who are trying their best to progress things but are meeting resistance - whether from telcos, penny-pichers with no vision and from procedural requirements in general - and I’m genuinely sorry if that’s the case, but it won’t stop me talking about it, because it’s important. My hope is that my commentary on this can be taken as strong support for those pushing through these barriers, and not accepting excuses.