Exploring the HS2-broadband debate header image

Published: 22nd Jun 2016

One debate that has been receiving a lot of attention in recent weeks is super-fast broadband versus high-speed rail.

These two subjects may not seem connected, but the argument essentially revolves around the fact a number of commentators have suggested the money the government is spending on the creation of the High Speed Rail 2 (HS2) project, which will provide faster services between London, Birmingham and major northern cities, would be better spent on improving the standard of broadband in the UK.

The issue was raised once again this week, with Gabriel Ahlfeldt, an economic professor at the London School of Economics, telling cable.co.uk it would make more sense for the coalition to invest in super-fast connectivity than quicker trains.

Around £43 billion is expected to be spent on HS2, while just £1.7 billion is being devoted to the government’s aim of bringing super-fast broadband to at least 90 per cent of the UK.

Prof Ahlfeldt is not the only expert to question whether this is the best way to use taxpayers’ money. Leading thinktank nef (the new economics foundation) has called for a portion of the funds being devoted to HS2 to be diverted to broadband improvements.

In a statement released last year, the organisation said: “We urge the government, as custodians of our scarce public resources, to step back from blindly pushing this one flashy train project and assess our options fully."

It suggested around £5.5 billion of the money set aside for HS2 should instead be used for broadband improvements. An individual who has spoken out on the issue is Scott Fletcher, founder of the ANS Group, who has claimed a better level of connectivity would benefit the UK more than faster train services.

He said this is the case as the development of the internet and connected technology means there is less need for inter-city travel in the business world.

"The need for face-to-face business meetings, and hence the need for superfast trains, will become less important in a world that is more dependent on digital conferencing and mobile computing devices,” he stated.

This view has been echoed by Stephen McGibbon, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He claimed modern business practices will be dependent on the web rather than traditional methods such as face-to-face meetings.

"The fact is nine to five cannot deliver 24/7. Customers want to do things 24/7 and technology is enabling everyone to do that. Workplaces can't handle that,” Mr McGibbon stated.

It is not just industry experts who question the wisdom of investing more in HS2 than broadband however.

A survey of people living in rural areas by Knight Frank found boosting internet access was seen as the main issue the government needs to tackle to improve life in the countryside. More than seven in ten respondents cited it as a top priority, which was considerably more than high-speed rail.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) found 43 per cent of people think better broadband would provide the UK with economic advantages. Only 16 per cent said the same about high-speed rail.

Despite this opposition, the government seems set to press ahead with HS2 and there is little chance of these funds being reallocated to broadband. As such, those people who want to improve their connectivity should perhaps consider alternative methods like satellite broadband if they want to enjoy the benefits fast and reliable internet access can bring.