Digital Britain: I was delighted to be wrong

My Christmas day blog on what I expected Lord (Santa) Carter to announce yesterday (at about the time that the Inuit in Sarah Palin’s neighbourhood Russian Orthodox church would have celebrated Christmas) was spectacularly wrong. He began the Westminster eForum Digital Britain event by saying that the announcement would not be until the end of the month. He then outlined much farther reaching objectives for that review than I had feared.

It would be based on five principles:

– the importance of the opportunity for change and the need for a fresh ambition: referring to the plans of Australia and across Asia

– the need for world class protection for the creative industries, so as to make the UK a location of choice for the content industries

– a clear view of the priorities for public action

– a universal view of participation (social, geographic etc.)

– getting players to the point when they can write business plans to deliver.

But perhaps the most ambitious objective was to bring together the threads of government policy in this area, to be driven by a single, coherent, team by May – June of this year.  

The magnitude of that last ambition was illustrated by disparity of the coverage of his speech this morning with, for example Brand Republic and Mediaweek, focused on his comments on the need to cherish the UK’s only world class content provider, the BBC, while fostering competition to them, including on the news front. The references to broadband were en passant.

The event was sponsored by the BCS and CMA: a piece of forward thiniking and positioning that I thoroughly applaud. But there was almost no-one present from the Computer industry. Even the ISP and Internet communities were conspicuous by their absence.

Also hardly any of those who are kind enough, or occasionally rude enough, to send me comments on this blog were present  Perhaps I should not have forward scheduled the blog to be posted on Christmas Day: when only sad obsessives and media luvvies go on-line other than to browse the shopping sites.

The Westminster eForum organised the event and the proceedings, including the discussion, will be available in due course. The discussion periods were a most interesting mix of breadth, depth, blinkers and banality. It is quite clear that even major players still have no concept as to why farmers’ wives struggling with Defra paperwork and supermarket supply chains need bandwidth in rural non-spots of the UK comparable to that already available across the backwoods of China or the wastes of Alaska: even before they start video-gossipping.

We still hear bleats about the need for “killer applications” for fibre to the home from patronising elites and technobabble enthusiasts who despise the interests of lesser mortals. The demand is are already out there: for Korea it was a mix of video-gossipping, 22 player on-line football and Lineage (and its ilk).  For Japan add on-line Karaoke and Cartooning. The last Oxford Internet Institute of usage in the UK showed a similar pattern, albeit lack of bandwidth meant the switch from e-mail to on-line gossip, other than among teenagers, is slower. But such “applications” do not fit western corporate business models – still trying to sweat past investment to deliver services that are too slow for purpose at costs above what the market will bear   

Both Lord Carter and Jeremy Hunt, for the opposition, may, however, have finally recaptured the vision and fire of the late 1980s: when the UK was leading the world towards a competitive inter-active video world by 2002: with BT versus the  Cable Companies versus the BBC and Broadcasters over a variety of mixes of fibre and wireless.

But rekindling the spirit of optimism and using it as part of an investment led economic recovery will be a major challenge. On 9th February, shortly after we expect Lord Carter to have made his announcement, the EURIM Communications group is organising a round table on the state of the 40 or so proposals for local, regional and national networks across the UK. The aim will be to digest and publicise the results to help expedite the necessary investment and procurement – the last and most most important of Lord Carter’s five principles.

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