If you ask me

This week we discuss the benefits of boosting our fibre (optic) intake and look towards the next UN Climate Conference.

Time for all of us to have a glass

...specifically, a glass optical-fibre link to our homes and businesses.

What do we suppose that the people of Britain most want from communications technology this New Year? Faster broadband? More jobs in a time of recession? A technology that will deliver more reliably without going out of date every couple of years? All of the above?

The old copper telephone infrastructure that delivers today's DSL broadband has been doing sterling service for more than 50 years, but is now nearing the end of the road. And despite the pace of modern technological development, for once optical fibre's role as the best replacement for all that copper is in little doubt, and looks likely to be good for at least another 50 years once installed.

Of course, just as the terminals on the copper wires were upgraded repeatedly to get better performance, the terminals on the fibre will be upgraded, too. But the big cost is in installing the fibre in the ground in the first place and this is the difficult step for industry .

Many countries, notably Japan, Korea, Sweden and France, are already installing fibre systems, offering 100Mbit/s (each way), about 50 times greater capacity than most people in the UK enjoy.

BT and Virgin are installing some fibre-based systems, although they are not taking the fibre right to the user in most cases. If we sit around and wait we will eventually get fibre to our homes and offices - but the wait may be quite long and, in the meantime, many of our most vibrant industries, such as those generating digital content including games and video, will suffer. And these industries really are on the leading edge - think of the BBC iPlayer and many video-based games developed in the UK.

I'm convinced that the economy needs a push to minimise the impact of the recession, but as an engineer and taxpayer I would prefer to buy something of real and lasting value. For me, this means not supporting industries that are already on their last legs, but paying people who need jobs to build real new infrastructure that my children and theirs can use to generate a better future - a positive investment, not an ineffective subsidy.

This means helping (in more ways than just money) to bring forward the installation of fibre links to homes and offices. A ubiquitous fibre network will make a profit and can therefore pay back the taxpayer for any help we provide, especially if the government is prepared to take a longer view on its return than industry can in these troubled times.

This is no longer an eccentric techie view - the Prime Minister seems to favour digital job creation, and opposition leader David Cameron has specifically called for a fibred Britain. There are vital public objectives here, from better education to improved health support. And getting any major infrastructure project out to everyone in less favoured and more rural areas will require government involvement anyway.

There are a lot of details to work out, including, for example, the integration of a fibre network with wireless systems, but we engineers can do this quickly enough.

The UK needs a new superfast digital highway to lead us into the new digital age - and now is the time to start building it.

Professor Will Stewart is vice-president for interdisciplinary research at the Optoelectronics Research Centre of the University of Southampton

A day to remember

Pencil the date in your diary - 7 December 2009. That's when the 15th UN Climate Conference will begin in Denmark. It is there that the assembled world leaders will endeavour to thrash out an agreement to combat the gravest threat that the planet has ever faced: climate change.

This is not the time or the place to stir the impassioned debate on climate change, suffice to say that all the major governments now accept that it is a grave threat, but getting them to agree how to combat it is another matter entirely.

With the Kyoto agreement set to expire in 2012, the December meeting is when a decision on its successor must be made if it is to slot seamlessly into place. The ball started rolling in Bali in December 2007 and was given an extra nudge at a largely disappointing gathering at Poznan in December 2008.

Many hoped that the Poznan meeting would illuminate the way forwards, but that was never likely. The US attended with a lame duck presidency and the EU, amidst its own internal squabbling, had no agreement on how to fund anything.

But the real crux of the problem comes from somehow getting the two big boys - the US and China - to play nicely together. China, with its double-digit growing economy, has now overtaken the US as the biggest carbon emitter, but continues to argue that the US has historically emitted more so it still has some catching up to do. Such disputes will permeate the discussion, but at least there is a growing awareness that something needs to happen soon.

China, rather than holding to a moral dictum, is beginning to talk figures, demanding that the developed world contribute 0.7 per cent of its GDP to aid developing countries in curbing their emissions. Putting aside the ridiculously high figure, well above the entire aid budgets at present, the fact that they are taking a negotiating stance offers a small crumb of hope.

Listening to India's lead negotiator, Shyam Saran, gives one a small flavour of the problem. "In India I need electricity for lightbulbs for half a billion without lights; in the West you want to drive your Mercedes as fast as you want."

So what should governments be working towards to make the meeting the historic landmark it needs to be?

The developed world must agree demanding new targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The developing world, although unlikely to adopt the same targets, must be put on the road to a low carbon economy and dispense with the sentiment that they have the right to continue to pollute unabated. And, probably toughest in the current economic climate, the richest nations must find a way of funding the steps that developing countries need to make.

A fully functioning and signed accord that meets our expectations is unlikely, but some sort of consensus is needed to put us on the path to a sustainable future. Failure will lead to 7 December 2009 being the date the world's leaders abdicated their responsibilities and set the world on a path of no return.

Mark Venables, power editor

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