Friday, 19 June 2009

The myopic vision of Digital Britain

Britain's much-hyped blueprint for the digital age, Digital Britain, has been taking a pasting in the papers since the publication of the final report this week. And rightly so.

There's been a lot of angry focus on the proposed tax/levy, or in its own words: "small general supplement ... for a Next Generation Fund" (!!) And on the top-slicing of BBC funding to support other content providers. But for me the worst failure is that the report has absolutely no clue about the importance of digital communications to the world of work.

The whole thing is hopelessly muddled. The problem is that Lord Carter has tried to plot a route through the miasma of fudges that make up our broadband and broadcast landscapes. The report has been too receptive to the special pleading of particular interest groups, and proposes some mildly interventionist measures that will do little to make a difference - except inhibit innovation.

The problem is, we don't do infrastructure well in the UK. Go 5 or 6 miles out of any city into a rural area, and your phone signal is likely to drop, and you'll be unable to get broadband. Having targets that are about having coverage for 98% or even 100% of residences will still leave vast tracts of the country that people work in and travel through without coverage. And it will leave many residences with no competition in terms of provider.

And 2 megabits broadband as a standard for universal service is shameful. The kind of consumer and business applications that will come on stream over the next 10 years will be much more bandwidth-hungry - particularly conferencing technologies and 3-D apps.

But the worst aspect of the report, is that it seems to think that telcos, broadcasters and new media companies are the only sectors that have an interest in this field. It's all about delivering content to largely passive consumers, and these are the players.

All businesses need the best available communications infrastructure, and the standard 2 megabit asymmetric connection just isn't it.

People working remotely, small businesses trying to reach new markets, and home-based businesses (41% of all businesses) will benefit from having much faster networks to communicate, to sell across and to deliver digital products. Digital Britain provides a muddled recipe for delaying what is needed for the new world of work.