Digital Britain - charge the Elephant not the dying donkey

The Digital Britain Report contains much that is to be welcomed and it will be unfortunate if debate focuses on the weakest section: the proposals for funding the roll out of broadband, particularly the levy on the local loop. The Internet advertisers, who will benefit most appear to have got away with paying least.    

Earlier thius week I blogged on the Elephant in the Room ; the need to exploit and harness the success of the advertising-funded, per per click search engines, especially Google, to pull through the necessary infrastucture investment.

Unfortunately I will not have to eat my hat.

We will indeed have to wait for the brains behind Google to appreciate the self-defeating nature of proposals to tax the users of infrastructures that are not fit for a world of Cloud computing. These will almost certainly delay rather than expedite the change necessary for us all to benefit from the success of Google and its competitors.

A couple of hundred million here or there is a drop in the bucket compared to the £3.4 billion and rising revenues of the UK pay-per-click advertising market for which Google is the gatekeeper. These are growing strongly, despite recession and are expected to overtake TV advertising this year.

But that entire industry, as well as the related aspirations of Cloud computing depend on ubiquitous access to properly resilient networks. During the heavy snow earlier this year mobile networks were going off air inside an hour of the mains power cut – as opposed to surviving 4 – 8 hours on the battery back up to the local masts. Its not just during an emergency like the 7/7 bombings that mobile gets overloaded. There are commonly blackspots around any motorway crash as  those stuck in the queues ring home or try to catch up with their workload over mobile broadband. 

At this point you should read and re-read the sections of the Digital Britain report on resilience and security – and be very, very afraid.

Part of the price for the licences for the spectrum to support mobile broadband should be not only a massive expansion in capacity but the provision of local standby power supplies to keep the networks going in the face of power cuts – a reversion to the standards of resilience expected when the Post Office telephone network, the London Underground and many other services had their own power supplies.

Given the increasingly availability of micro-generation and the potential for using satelite broadcast for kickstart alignment and recovery, this need not be that expensive. Some claim it can be consderably cheaper than the estimates currently banded about. Indeed I have heard one claim that migrating the local council, blue light and health networks onto a single highly resilient broadband network (with alternative standby routings and power supplies) would result in a net saving of 50% on their current bills.

Could such an approach be extended to give the whole community world class, secure access to the global information society? That is one of the questions on which I look forward to staging debate as part of EURIM’s forward programme for the class of 2010 – the largest ever intake of new MPs.  

Such an approach does, however, require innovative thinking.

And Google is clearly much better at that than Whitehall.

That said, do read the full Digital Britain report. It is far more than just a curate’ egg: good in parts. It contains much excellent material. Just don’t get hung up on the sections that are not so good. Treat these as the start point for looking at better ways forward.

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