Have we really got the will to deliver digital inclusion?

Today at the Digital Inclusion Conference, after an introduction by the Prime Minister, Stephen Timms confirmed the Government commitment to make the UK the world’s leading on-line nation. But I have just had an illustration gap between claims and reality. A colleague is using “rural broadband” to put an entry for our competition for You-Tube clips onto a website for the judges to access. Her last e-mail indicated that it had taken 45 minutes to transmit 16% of the file but she was confident of getting it done tonight. Meanwhile it would appear that the MPs who had volunteered as judges cannot access the judging site over the Parliamentary network.   

I thoroughly applaud the objectives of the Digital Inclusion Task Force and the objectives outlined by the Prime Minister and fleshed out by Stephen Timms.

We must also, however, recognise the scale and nature of the challenge that we face if we are to enable the engineers of BT, Virgin, Cable & Wireless, Vodafone, O2, Carphone Warehouse (now Britain’ biggest ISP), Babcock, Thales, Alcetel Lucent et al to refurbish our overloaded and crumbling infrastructure while rolling out that which we will over the years ahead, retrofitting the resilience and security by design/defaut that we have not got.

In parallel we need rapid action to free up and sort out more spectrum for the emergency service and for mobile broadband as more and more of us access the on-line world via our mobiles. That particularly applies to the socially excluded who are increasingly unlikely to have a reliable broadband quality landline to their home – partly because of cost and partly because the inner city networks appear to be crumbling as fast as those serving rural areas. Hence the importance of Lord Erroll’s amendment 9A.  

The first step is to stop playing politics (and I do not mean party politics) with business models and costings.

A key message from a recent meeting between the vlauation office and network operators on business rates was that no-one has been willing to give any “actuals” data to the Valuation Office to enable the “Tone List” guestimates to be based on genuine construction costs or current rental values.

Everyone has been playing “commercial confidentiality” games while complaining about the consequences.  Hence my blog on the current Broadband Stakeholders Group costing exercise – not just to produce data for their model but also for the Valuation Office to use.   

Hence also the critical importance of freeing BT (at every level) to make enough from servie improvements and new investment to reward its long-suffering shareholders and pay off its pension deficit – before the latter comes back to haunt the Treasury, But freedom to compete no more equates with anti-competitive predatory practice than competition equates with a regulated market in which no one makes money by providing better service than their rivals.  

I never fail to be impressed by the quality of the BT help desk staff and engineers trying to overcome the obstacles to providing the providing the joined up customer service they used to. I’d like to see there perseverance rewarded in this life, not just the next.

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The answer is probably not and perhaps we should not even try.

In trying to address the digital inclusion issue for the poor what we are actually trying to fix is poverty. Which while laudable is not something which will be achieved the Digital Economy bill or Martha Lane Fox.

The economics for the poor make broadband a no go. A study commissioned by the post office (which I have somewhere on my hard drive) demonstrated that while upper and middle income groups benefit significantly from price comparision websites etc the poorest do not. They don't make as many large purchases and therefore do not benefit. In fact the net saving for the poorest percentile is predicted to be around £1 per month - which puts the 50p levy in perspective.

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Also, I don't blame the companies for not wanting to hand over the data for the compilation of the Tone list figures. All communications providers should be moved onto the R&E method enjoyed by BT. It's insane to on the one hand encourage companies to take big risks in NGA roll out whilst also taxing them regardless of how profitable, or costly, that risk proves to be.

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The government may call this digital "inclusion", I see it more as force feeding technology to the masses. There are many people, mostly pensioners, who simply do not want anything to do with computers or the internet but who will nevertheless be compelled, by force of law, to subsidise those who do. To these people the 50p tax will seem like theft.

I sometimes wonder how long it will be before not being 'digital' becomes a criminal offence.

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@Chuckwallah

I agree entirely. The problem for the Government is that in order to justify a huge investment it uses cost saving for delivering social services, benefits and, least likely of all, healthcare.

I do believe we need to get more people online and the elderly could benefit from doing so. But they will anyway, just not via a computer the television will be a major access point for many people. And, had the Gov' put some thought in Smart metering could have been used as an low cost means of access. Imagine if fuel providers could advertise what you would save if you switched to them actually on the smart meter?

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