So this afternoon I went to a conference about highways.
Despite what you might imagine, this was geeky even for me. But I had been persuaded to run a workshop on “Smart Rural” a half-formed idea I (and other rural types) have that smart city initiatives may not have that much to offer the countryside.
I thought we would be talking about autonomous vehicles and intelligent tractors. But in fact we ended up talking about internet connectivity.
This was slightly galling because I try not to talk about internet connectivity. It’s a big problem in rural areas but it’s not going to be resolved at the sort of scale and speeds that would make a lot of smart city type projects viable.
But it does seem to sit at the heart of many issues in this space.
So what, I asked the group, are solutions that don’t involve the answer “Gigabit fibre”.
And one of our participants told us the story of a hack used in Cuba to get round the fact that Internet access is not available. People move files (video, magazines, books) physically. By regular courier or truck. It’s an obvious solution. And actually in the west we move very large files (or collections of files) physically because of the time taken to stream across the Internet.
So, this got me thinking, could we do something similar in rural areas? Could we arrange local (in village) caching of, for example, the BBC iPlayer. The BBC already uses Content Delivery Networks to cache files locally to your ISP. This would be an iteration of that approach. The data could be distributed across a local network: say a WAN or a mesh. The files could be updated over the internet pipe into the village or physically brought to the location, or a combination of the two.
And maybe the same system could serve other content. Unlike the Cuba model there is likely to be a connection to the network, just one of limited bandwidth. So the server could be intelligent about what data it pulled (and sent) down the pipe and what data stored for physical transport.
There are a range of vehicles that visit rural communities on a regular basis: most obviously (and, in this context, pleasingly) the Royal Mail, but milk tankers, feed transport, the cars of commuters, buses, refuse lorries and so on.
Maybe as the connection enabled Royal Mail van enters the village it connects to the WAN, handshakes and starts pulling the data off the network as it travels around. Then it stores it on-board and handshakes with a server connected to a (bigger, faster) pipe back at the depot. What the Royal Mail didn’t have time to capture can be loaded to the Milk Tanker a bit later.
I can’t decide if this is a good idea (in which case it’s probably already being used somewhere) or over-engineered silliness (in which case someone in my network will probably met me know.
For completeness here are photos of the flipcharts that we created in our discussion.