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Digital for Londoners 12.04.16

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12 Apr 2016
Digital for Londoners by Derek Wyatt

We have been sold a pup. Londoners have awful broadband speeds (it's not actually a broad band) and frankly we have shameful public and private wireless connections for our mobiles. I could explain why but let's just mention those initials BT and Ofcom and you get the picture though it might well be delayed. 

To put it more simply: the market has failed Londoners. Last year, I pondered what to do. 

I wanted a health App which carried all my X-rays, prescriptions, Appointments , allergies, travel inoculation history, operations with dates and my family disease chart, critical phone numbers for my GP and consultants; book and web links.

I wanted a GCSE App for every subject. And for each subject I wanted 100 videos of one minute's duration of the best teachers explaining key parts of the curriculum. I wanted every exam paper over the past five years, every critical text book to be a available electronically for free and an 0800 number to link me to former teachers who I could Skype between 5pm and 8pm if I did not understand my homework. 

Most of all I wanted a Raspberry Pi thin "iPad" made available to every student and every pensioner in London for £30 a pop. 

Put simply, even if we had this vision we would not have the digital infrastructure to deliver it. We would have to wait two generations of school children before London was a 20 gigabit city. That is because the current broadband providers have an unhealthy monopoly which is badly damaging London's reputation as a leading global city. There is another way.

Just as Transport for London is a not-for-profit company so could Digital for Londoners which is what the new mayor needs to create. It could be a municipal authority much as Joe Chamberlain created as Mayor of Birmingham 140 years ago. It could be a cooperative on the John Lewis lines, even a charity but whatever it needs to be for Londoners. 

I hear the off-line cries from the right "But how will it be funded?" There are a range of options - a London lottery scheme, a London spectrum auction, a London monthly addition on our council taxes much as it was when we were surtaxed for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, a London top up either on an Oyster card or on the Congestion charge (we have much greater congestion online) or finally a London allowance on stamp duty. We must not be defeatist: we can find a way.

Our city needs to be always on. Increasingly, we are working at home, more of us have two jobs, some of us have to work shifts to provide a 24/7 NHS or a 24/7 global business base. The way we work and play is changing. London has to be on top of these trends not following them. It is already woefully behind. Boris has missed a golden opportunity to create the best city in the world.

And though it is fashionable to bash the City without a 20 gigabit offering by 2020 it will fall behind New York, Seoul, Beijing, Singapore, Frankfurt and even Chattanooga. We are more and more dependent on the skill sets and legacies we have in finance for the continuing wealth of the nation. Coming second, third or fourth will seriously disrupt our tax base. 

So in case I have not made it abundantly clear we need Digital for Londoners. The current debates and positioning by the existing candidates has been terribly disappointing. It is as if they too do not get the picture. 

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