THE ANORAK

Bandwidth is one of those words guaranteed to turn any member of an IT department into a car mechanic, sucking their teeth, shaking their head and saying, “big job… going to cost ya… not easy” and suchlike. But as firms race to add the latest high-tech fad to their operation and their marketing literature, it is a word that will feature in more and more conversations.

Virtual dealing rooms and the like do not come cheap. It’s not just the programmers needed to build the things, the experts needed to add the artificial intelligence (AI) and the computers needed to host them on (or is it “in”?). It’s the pipes in and out that allow the unimpeded flow of information and data. That may be text now, but in the e-arms race that firms seem happy to be in at the moment, soon it will be fat-pipe-hogging, bandwidth-hungry audio, video and undoubtedly 3D model holograms on which the systems run.

The firms, particularly those tightly packed into the Square Mile or so of the capital, face a massive investment challenge, unless some way of delivering bandwidth cheaply and efficiently appears. The Square-Mile-friendly-Government thought it had done just that by freeing up some of the radio spectrum to allow broadband wireless connections. In a nutshell, these licences allow a phone company to offer broadband datarates (in excess of two megabits per second, should you be asked) direct to rooftop aerials. These connections could happily run video conferencing, high capacity data transfer or an awesome game of Quake. A good deal for Government and business, the marketing had it…

But it seems that businesses did not agree. Rather than the monopoly money paid for the 3G wireless licences, the 42 Broadband Fixed Wireless Access (BFWA) licences raised rather less than the £1.1bn expected. Gordon Brown gets a little more than £38m to add to his war chest. Some licences outside London didn’t even get sold.

Of course, this reluctance to enter a bidding war may be because everyone is geared to the hilt after the 3G beano, or players are banking on making money from fibre, but you could argue that in the end customers missed out on the chance of a cheap licence. Not every industry is waiting to see how the increasingly consolidating (for which read monopolistic) Euro-telco industry is going to bill them.

London is about to be enveloped in “data clouds” thanks to a couple of techies in Shoreditch. Using the free part of the radio spectrum reserved for CB radio, consume.net are building a cooperative wireless broadband network. This free-network idea (a bit like Napster or open-source software) offers the promise of a data cloud, a wireless internet network that users can log on to via their laptops or desktop networks in return for agreeing to be a “node” on that network, sharing bandwidth and potentially costs.

This free network idea has a long way to go and the technology is still too flakey to build a business on, but if the history of other open source initiatives is anything to go by, it’s set to grow and become more effective, stable and powerful. The agencies in Shoreditch are already deep in discussion with consume.net. How long until this datacloud – or another one – spreads a little further out from EC1?