The British government is wrestling with the practical implications of the switch of many technologies from analogue to digital operation and distribution.
Its answers will determine whether the UK will have a communications "nervous system" that will allow its business, government and communities to thrive economically and to improve their quality of life.
It is therefore a debate of crucial importance to everyone who wished to live and work in the UK for the next decade or two.
What Nicholas Negroponte, head of the MIT Media Lab called the Digital Switch is transforming broadcasting, telephony, computer networking, advertising, travel, shopping, leisure and work, to name but some aspects of life.
Such a transformation takes decades. People change their habits reluctantly. But such are the benefits of the recent rapid technological progress that they are prepared to adopt the implicit changes quickly.
Governments are struggling to keep up. Britain enacted a new communications act in 2003. It is already inadequate. Businesses that were encouraged to invest in applications enabled by the act have barely had enough time to amortise their investments.
Communications minister Stephen Carter published an interim report on 29 January 2009 called Digital Britain. This summarised the work of at least four formal consultations and countless hours of debate, and gave the first inkling of the government’s ideas on the best way forward for the country.
It proposed 22 action points to achieve five main goals:
- To upgrade and modernise the UK’s our digital networks – wired, wireless and broadcast – so that Britain has an infrastructure that enables it to remain globally competitive in the digital world;
- To create a dynamic investment climate for UK digital content, applications and services, that makes the UK an attractive place for both domestic and inward investment in our digital economy;
- To create UK content for UK users: content of quality and scale that serves the interests, experiences and needs of all UK citizens; in particular impartial news, comment and analysis;
- To ensure fairness and access for all: universal availability coupled with the skills and digital literacy to enable near-universal participation in the digital economy and digital society; and
- To develop the infrastructure, skills and take-up that enable the widespread online delivery of public services and business interface with government.
It has been welcomed almost universally as a step forward, but far it is from the stride many, especially businesses, were hoping for.
Carter’s interim report is a consultation document. The government has set up two channels to foster public debate and to gather feedback on the issues. They are the Digital Britain Forum, and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline for formal replies is 17.00 on 12 March 2009, but the government will continue to monitor comments posted to the web forum.
Carter is expected to publish his final report in late May or early June, and this is expected to become government policy.