For over three years, the UK government has been trying to make "Tech City" happen. And to some extent, it has—the buildings around Shoreditch's "Silicon Roundabout" and beyond have filled up with tech startups, even if they're not quite as kickass as London Mayor Boris Johnson might hope.
The government is keen to claim Tech City as Europe's answer to Silicon Valley (though a European Commission report suggested Munich has that crown), but some startups have one problem with the innovation hotspot: Their internet's crap.
Labour MP Meg Hillier, who represents Hackney South and Shoreditch, held a roundtable event this morning for local businesses to air their broadband grievances. In her intro to the event, she said that, "In Tech City, the much trumpeted European hub of technology, businesses are moving out because they simply cannot access high-speed broadband."
The issue is access to super-fast fibre optic broadband, or rather lack of it. That's been a problem in rural communities, but it's rather more surprising that it's also dogging the supposed tech hub of the country. High-speed internet is kind of important when you're trying to launch an internet company.
Hillier was unavailable for comment at the time of writing, but she's made her views clear before. Last month she raised the issue with David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions, where she called the state of broadband a "national embarrassment." In May, she told free London newspaper the Evening Standard that, "We have some of the most technically focused companies relying on copper. I spoke to an entrepreneur who had to leave the area because the internet was so slow."
The government has thrown some money at the problem in the form of £3,000 vouchers to help businesses cover setup fees, but as the Guardian's Samuel Gibbs explains, the issue isn't so much the money as the time. Indeed, if you're able to afford to base a business in Tech City, you'd think the price of an internet hookup wouldn't be too prohibitively costly. The simple fact is that the infrastructure's not there, and unlike rural communities, you can't exactly dig your own in the middle of a metropolis.
Juliette Garfield expands on that, explaining that many buildings in Tech City have a direct line from telephone exchanges rather than the green cabinets you see on the streets, which limit them to copper rather than fibre. She reports on a new pilot scheme that internet service provider BT plans to start in Shoreditch in October, which would take fibre to "nodes" on the street, where they can connect to the building's copper.
But as well as the hassle of having to actually get fibre in the ground and to the buildings, the major hurdle seems to be red tape. Most of the complaints seem to be around companies moving to new premises and finding it takes months to get connected owing to the planning, permits, and general organisation required. But wider projects to improve infrastructure have also met with barriers.
The Register reported that the government's Urban Broadband Fund, which planned to use state aid to invest in infrastructure, met with potential delays at the European Commission owing to competition concerns. The voucher solution got around that, but Hillier calls it a "sticking plaster," asking for a "comprehensive review of broadband, and plans for infrastructure and roll-out, and for a competitive framework that delivers."
That will likely ultimately be necessary, if Tech City is to live up to his name. Meanwhile, startups attracted by the bright lights of Silicon Roundabout would do well to take on some responsibility themselves. If you're hoping to launch an internet-based business, perhaps it'd be a good idea to first check that your shiny new office actually has internet access.