Putting "the final third" first: making a reality of digital inclusion

The launch of “The Final Third First Campaign” has been well covered in journals like Farmers Weekly and those targetted at the tourist trade (a surprising number of well-known attractions are in broadband notspots with hotels and campsites unable to take bookings on-line). But the objectives also embrace those trapped in inner city notspots: those on Martha Lane Fox’s social inclusion target lists. That is why it is The Final Third, not just the last 10%.

Hence the focus in my recent blog on the need for HMG to address digital inclusion issues in the context of its drive towards on-line government. The meeting to which I referred was that hosted by the Country Landowners and Business which agreed the “Final Third First” campaign title and the objectives – after a discussion which moved from the technical to the social – cross referencing the target given by the Prime Minister to Martha Lane Fox.

We need to remember that much of the BT network serving our inner cities is unprofitable and crumbling, not just because of unbundling but also because customers are transitioning to mobile phones to save money and pay for their Sky boxes. If they go on-line it is increasingly via a mobile or an Internet cafe. It would be cheaper to replace the rotting copper with fibre (also less likely to be stolen) than to maintain it. But unbundling gets in the way. Therefore it is cheaper still to do as little as possible and focus on the areas that make money.

We need to use government’s on-line service delivery targets to help pull through the solution for inner cities as well as for rural areas.

BT is very much part of the infrastucture solution. Government is very much part of the market solution. Local loop unbundling is, as predicted by its opponents in the 1990s part of the problem. It has brought us cheap always-on Internet at prices lower than for dial up. But that means investment in upgraded services cannot be funded from after tax profits. Menawhile  HM Treasury has to have a care for its liability for the BT pension deficit. 

In short, we need more accountants and investment bankers and fewer economists and regulatory lawyers looking at broadband policy. We also need to listen more to the engineers, particularly about how to improve performance by low cost bottleneck removal.