Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Digital Britain Unravelled

I have just finished reading the govt's 'Digital Britain' report here.

It's a whopper. Some good in places but very, very limited in others. Overall I would say it simply doesn't go far enough and really does not have a clear and fully thought out vision of the future.

One of the key issues is the government's proposal to tax every fixed telephone line 50p per month to pay for the country-wide roll-out of of 2mb Internet access by 2012. Otherwise known as the Universal Service Broadband Commitment.

I support the idea of ensuring that everyone has 'high-speed' internet access but:

1) 2mb (thats roughly 200kilobytes per second) is quite limited - when most of us get 8-16mb already - so why set the aiming point so low? The answer given is that this speed can be achieved by utilising the existing copper infrastructure and/or current generation wireless technology - but the reality is that more can be achieved over copper/wireless - without the need for an expensive, country-wide fibre based network.

2) Why setup an entirely new taxation system to pay to connect up the 'final third' of the country? How much cash gets lost in admin of an entirely new tax structure? Why does it make sense to get fixed line telephone users to pay for it? Surely as an infrastructure issue it should simply come out of the main tax pot?

My view is that high-speed countrywide Internet connectivity is a vital piece of infrastructure that the govt must ensure is put in place - but not 2mb - how about 50mb as the next immediate aiming point (just like current Virgin customers can have).

As a nation we have a major disadvantage in that we are a highly populated small island. But in communication terms, it means that the relative cost (compared to other nations) of interconnecting our work force digitally is a relatively low-cost. So lets play to our strengths. Let's aim to have the fastest, most technically advanced network in the world - so that our creative industries can really lead the way.. for us it would cost a fraction of what it would cost other less densely populated countries.

Digital Britain talks a lot about broadcasting and the role of the BBC, C4 and other established media providers. This really is out of date. Fledgling web-TV ventures, such as the ill-fated 18DoughtyStreet station, have proved that it is possible to produce high-quality content at low-cost. However, they are unable to be self sustaining financially because the volume of users (and therefore the advertising revenue) is limited by lack of high-speed internet adoption (provision and usage) and by lack of set-top box solutions. How many of us political geeks used to unsatisfactorily spend many evening hours crouched over laptops watching 18DoughtyStreet - when we would much rather have sat in front of our TVs to watch and participate? But other Internet TV stations are flourishing in markets where watching on computer is not an issue - e.g. Financial Services.

Web-TV will eventually fundamentally change the media business. In other words, once everyone has proper high-speed Internet access and therefore manufacturers start producing low-cost set-top boxes that everyone can plug into their TV and their Internet connection we will see the whole media business change. The slow death of paper based media will accelerate (and consequently advertising revenues from Internet advertising will increase) and the BBC/ITV/C4/C5 based channels will no longer have the stranglehold over the market that they currently enjoy. The die is cast - it's just a question of how long it takes, or how the lack of vision prevents us from enjoying the rewards.

First people will come home from work, flick on their TV to read their email and watch their favourite Internet TV channels (many of them run from the homes of people who run the 'channels'). Then later many people will not come home from work because most of them will work from home because the degree of interaction they can achieve with their Plasma TV, a high-speed Internet connection and a web-cam on the front of it will mean there is no justification for continuing to clog up the highways of Britain going to work.

It's time to implement the technology that is available, time to show some vision and leadership. Digital Britain, I'm afraid, simply proves that the Labour govt will not be the govt to do it.

A high-speed digital infrastructure could do for this country what the implementation of a country-wide telephone network did in the 1950s or the motorway network did in the 1960s but even more so..

But if it is going to be a key factor in providing this nation with a real world-leading commercial advantage, and enable us to drive down costs of delivery in public services (e.g. remote doctors appts - as proposed by the govt) then we don't need a paltry 2mb Internet connection that wouldn't deliver full motion video to a standard HD TV - we need it to be much faster..now.

The technology is there, the applications are there, the IT/Comms industry is ready for it, and the media industries have already been waiting for it for over 10 years - so come on lets get on with it!!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well done for condensing the report so that the ordinary man on the street can understand it. I agree with everything you say but where does this leave the computer-illiterate - will there still be an alternative for them?

Robin Horsley said...

Anon - thanks for your comment.

I am not sure that computer illiteracy is an issue in the longer term.

Currently the computer is still, to an extent, a specialist device.

But many computer illiterates happily use their SKY+ box to watch television - so actually they use a computer everyday.

Ubiquitous high-speed broadband fast enough to deliver HD TV, Email, Web-browsing etc will be the key enabling technology that will make the computer illiterate, literate.

Not by teaching them how to use a computer - but by making the computer accessible and simple enough to use so that it simply becomes an extension of their TV remote control.

Robin Horsley said...

Anon - thanks for your comment.

I am not sure that computer illiteracy is an issue in the longer term.

Currently the computer is still, to an extent, a specialist device.

But many computer illiterates happily use their SKY+ box to watch television - so actually they use a computer everyday.

Ubiquitous high-speed broadband fast enough to deliver HD TV, Email, Web-browsing etc will be the key enabling technology that will make the computer illiterate, literate.

Not by teaching them how to use a computer - but by making the computer accessible and simple enough to use so that it simply becomes an extension of their TV remote control.

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