Avanti for notspots: because your voters are wooorth it

The Labour Candidates at the EURIM Dragons Den in Brighton shared many concerns with the LibDem Dragons in Bournemouth but we also discussed the need for industry, both suppliers and users, to help organise briefing events, material and other support for those involved in local broadband access campaigns. 


Bob Gilbert, Chair of Nominet, David Butler of Atkins and myself were grilled by Motorsport Team Principal John Cowan (Labour candidate for South East Cambridgeshire), IT Test Consultant Julian Ware-Lane (Castle Point) and Chairdragon, Hamish Sandison (Monmouth). Hamish (on the Council of EURIM and active in the National Computing Centre and Intellect the ICT trade association), invited the MP for Torchwood (alias Cardiff South and Penarth), the Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, one of the Directors of EURIM to join in the grilling. 


Speaking first, David Butler said that government and the public services  are now critically dependent on on-line systems,  but the perception is that delivery reputation has been  lamentable. Whether or not that is justified we need to ensure past mistakes are not repeated.  The key is  to remember that these programmes are business change activities and therefore the people, process, technology and leadership elements must all be taken into account and it is essential to have the right information to ask the right questions at the appropriate time. “


Bob Gilbert described how we are reliant on the Internet but fail to consider how it is governed. Politicians need to be much more involved in that process. The Nominet Best Practice Awards are one of the means of encouraging good governance. Winners include the Internet Watch Foundation, the Business Crime Reduction Centre and Barclays Bank Pinsentry.


I repeated my concerns that ill-considered regulation could drive away the wealth creating jobs of the future leaving us poor relations to the Asian technology powerhouses.


The parliamentary candidates took turns to quiz the panel.  


John Cowan, Labour’s Candidate for South East Cambridgeshire asked some tough questions on public procurement, saying:


“I’m concerned about future-proofing the UK’s digital infrastructure. We have to ensure long-term functionality balanced against the cost of implementation. I want assurances from the ICT industry that the public will get value for money out of project commissioning. It is vital to cut waste in public procurement while delivering an efficient service for local people.”


Julian Ware-Lane, candidate for Castle Point asked about Internet regulation:


“Internet governance is vital – the industry needs to work with government and do more to protect children, pensioners and vulnerable adults from scams, spams, grooming and other forms of online crime. We also need a means of distinguishing trusted sources and data from inaccurate sites without stifling creativity or introducing internet censorship. I hope the industry will consider a scheme of certification in order to ensure that people get the maximum benefit from this fantastic resource while remaining protected.”


Alun Michael MP commented on the need to progress the vision for co-operation between industry and government to create Internet Governance protocols that would avoid the need for legislation that would quickly become outdated.  We may have been first but others, such as the five nations of the East African Internet Governance Forum are catching up fast and may soon overtake us “they know that it is impractical to wait for a top-down treaty on internet governance from an international body like the UN. There is no logic to it.” 


Bob Gilbert, Chair of Nominet also spoke passionately about this issue:


“Together with government we can make the internet a better, safer space. The Internet doesn’t recognise national boundaries and it can be very hard to know who is in control. Regulation must be very light-touch but initiatives are beginning to spring up to combat many of the problems associated with the internet – for instance, the success of the Internet Watch Foundation in virtually eradicating the hosting of child abuse images in the UK.”


There was a discussion on the need for candidates to become involved in local exercises to bring broadband to their constituencies because the best means of doing so varies according to whether the area is flat or hilly, urban or rural. In other parts of the world this involved municipal enterprise, co-operatives and long-term contracts for business and consumer users so that risk investment (funded expensively by venture capitalists) could be turned into leasing deals (very much cheaper to fund). This led to discussion on the need to brief candidates on the obstacles to such approaches in the UK: from our idiosyncratic interpretations of EU procurement rules to the impact of business rates (unpredictable let alone disproportionate and skewed) on shared infrastructure services.


The idea of reserving satellite broadband for addressing rural notspots generated a discussion in the bar afterwards which led to the headline for this blog. At the meeting I mistakenly referred to Aviva as the would-be satellite deliverer. In fact it is Avanti. But both sound like L-Oreal products – hence the headline for this blog. 


Hamish Sandison, candidate for Monmouth and Chairdragon, summarised the overall discussion as flagging up the need for more candidates to show an interest in ICT matters so as to ensure that they better understand the role of ICT in government.  Equally important, he said, was for the ICT industry to spend more time with constituency MPs and candidates – busting jargon and explaining how ICT could be used to put public policy into practice.


After the formal Den, the Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for Digital Britain joined the speakers and candidates for a brief discussion on some of the issues raised earlier and to emphasise the need for more MPs with a good understanding of the technology and the issues to be addressed.