If you live in Sheffield you probably can't read this

Fibre optic cables. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Sheffield sucks: let's not beat around the bush here. I mean, yeah, okay, the steel was good while it lasted, but we all know that's over. There are two significant movies substantially set in Sheffield. One's about naked miners, the other sees it destroyed by nuclear fire. That says something, doesn't it? The place is a dump.

Okay, I don't actually think that (to my shame, I've never been there). But I feel on relatively safe ground being mean about the (no doubt glorious) Yorkshire city because this is an online publication. And something about Sheffield that genuinely does suck is its internet access.

There are a number of different ways of measuring how good a city's broadband connection is. You can look at the average speed of the connection between your computer and the local exchange:

Or you look at the percentage receiving less than a certain speed:

Then again, you might want to look at the percentage of those who have access to superfast broadband, which connects using fibre optic cables rather than phone lines, and consequently allows things like video streaming:

Whichever way you look at it, though, certain trends become clear. When it comes to the internet, some cities (Belfast, Bristol, Nottingham) are much more connected than others (Glasgow, Sheffield).

Over the last month two different organisations have highlighted the economic implications of this gulf. The City Growth Commission's “Connected Cities” report mostly attracted headlines for its ambitious transport plans, but it also described “broadband variability" as a concern that needed addressing.  Meanwhile, “The Fourth Utility”, a report published by the Federation of Small Businesses, found that 14 per cent of businesses described crappy broadband to be "their main barrier to growth". (Amazingly, 45,000 businesses still rely on dial-up.)

It's worth remembering that these figures are averages. The main determinant of broadband speeds is the quality of “last mile” infrastructure – that is, the links between users and the local telephone exchange. That means there are almost certainly wider disparities within cities than there are between them. Not everyone in Bristol is cheerfully bingeing on Orange is the New Black on Netflix; not everyone in Sheffield is watching websites load a pixel at a time.

Nonetheless, it’s worth asking: why are some places so much better connected than others?

As it turns out, it’s not so much one problem as three.

1) The investment incentives are all wrong.

It's easy to persuade companies to invest in links between cities: these are in great demand, so those investments will be profitable. But the bottleneck is in the last mile – the twigs of the network, rather than its trunk. This requires a lot of different cables, each connecting to a relatively small pool of users. Investing in those just isn’t that profitable: if you're an ISP, why would you bother?

Normally the reason why you'd bother is "because if you don't, your competitors will". The only problem is...

2) The market is deeply uncompetitive

In 2007, just five companies held 82 per cent of the broadband market. Five years later, just four of them held 87 per cent. Competition is weak, and it's getting weaker.

That means there's very little incentive to invest. Don’t like the service you’re getting? Tough. Where else you gonna go?

Oh, and...

3) European law isn't helping

The government is allowed to invest in digital infrastructure if it can demonstrate that no private company is going to do so – but EU rules on state aid prevent it from building public infrastructure to compete if private investment is already there. And, in the case of the broadband market, the service providers are investing – just, not very fast.

This is not a theoretical problem. In 2011, the British government launched its "Superconnected Cities" policy, a £150m scheme championed by chancellor George Osborne, which was meant to create superfast broadband in 22 different British cities. BT and Virgin Media promptly got the ‘ump and lodged legal objections, alleging that this amounted to anti-competitive behaviour.

They won. With just a hint of smugness, a Virgin spokesperson told Tech Week Europe:

“Where companies are already investing in world class connections, government has recognised public money should not be used to build more networks.”

So, the government abandoned its plans to invest in infrastructure, and is now instead distributing the money as vouchers with which small companies can buy better internet connections. Which most of them can’t, because Virgin, BT et al haven’t got round to building them yet.

It'd be oversimplifying things to say there was any direct correlation between broadband speeds and economic growth: London remains an economic giant despite being in the middle of the pack. It's worth noting, too, that there are areas that used to dream of having Sheffield's broadband speeds. Here are its figures compared to those you can get in the UK's biggest blackspot, the Isles of Scilly:

But what is clear is that there's a growing consensus that

a) future economic growth will require investment in superfast broadband in all parts of Britain's cities, not just those where it's immediately profitable; and

b) the current crop of internet service providers is taking its sweet time about obliging.

In one of its less-noticed recommendations, the City Growth Commission called on the government to commission a major review to work out how to change all this. Your move, minister.

 
 
 
 

Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.