Why Build A New U.K. Railway? Better Broadband!

Derision greets claim that a divisive national transport infrastructure project will bring better access to high-speed Internet and "faster water."
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What government doesn't like infrastructure projects? Big-ticket projects are said to create jobs, boost economies and lay the foundations for future prosperity. There's The Big Dig in Boston, The People's Republic of China's new 1,400-mile-long bullet train network, and the Channel Tunnel – a.k.a. Chunnel -- linking England and France. The list goes on. We all heard, too, Obama's promise in his Inauguration speech Monday to "build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores."

What's not often talked about is how even the most shovel-ready project seems to take years to get started; the skyrocketing costs to actually ever complete them; or the disappointing actual social benefits they seem to deliver.

No lack of skepticism is greeting an interesting bit of public relations by the U.K. government on its motivation to build an unpopular 90-mile rail link that will plunge directly through the beautiful Cotswolds. The claim: The rail link isn't just for commuters or property developers; it's for better broadband.

[ Learn more about the U.S. broadband effort. Read Obama Seeks To Speed Broadband Infrastructure Deployment . ]

According to Simon Burns, the U.K.'s Minister of State for Transport and the pol in charge of the country's railways strategy, the proposed High Speed 2, or HS2 -- a pork-barrel project whose price tag has ballooned from $52 billion (£33bn) to $119 billion (£75bn) before a sod of earth has been turned -- will benefit those living nearby with better Web access and "faster" water.

Says Burns, "HS2 is far more than a new railway line; it is a national infrastructure project that will bring places and people closer together while creating jobs and driving growth. … Construction of HS2 gives us the perfect opportunity to explore how we can make it easier for even more people to benefit from ultrafast broadband, and potentially deliver improvements to the provision of other utility services, including water and electricity."

Burns recently earned some unflattering headlines when it was discovered he prefers to get a car from his country home to his workplace in central London instead of using the rail system he is in charge of. He said the 40-mile trip is better spent in a chauffeured official car so he can read "sensitive government documents," at a cost to the taxpayer of the equivalent of $127,000 per year.

In response to Burns' railway claim, critics have pointed out that an estimated 70% to 90% of homes along the proposed route already get what the government defines as "superfast" Internet access. In the U.K., "superfast" broadband equals 20 megabits per second or above; most private citizens get no more than 8 Mbps to 9 Mbps. Fiber-based, "ultrafast" broadband is 100 Mbps or more.

Undeterred, Burns maintains HS2 is being designed to "allow a broadband superhighway to be built without any intrusion to the landscape."

If it is, the superhighway is a way off from its first cyber traveler: The first leg is not scheduled to open until 2026. By then, we might know what "faster water" looks like, too.

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