Reconciling the Cabinet Office Digital by Default strategy with DCMS Digital Infrastructure Strategy

The responses to my attempt to drum up inputs to the DCMS Digital Infrastructure Strategy Consultation are beginning to come in and it looks as though the short order round table to begin the process of identifying who is willing to work with whom on what will be over -subscribed and more of the exercise will have to be done on-line, using services like that on which I blogged earlier this week. The inputs to date range from calls for better control over BT’s pricing policies to action to prevent growing social exclusion – by firmly linking the implementation of the Infrastructure strategy to that of the Cabinet Office Digital by Default agenda, to ensure universal access to on-line services that are “fit for purpose”. The means would include extending the mandatory PSN and G-Cloud use of international inter-operability standards to include IPV6 to ensure future compatibility with the rest of the world. 

There is a predictable split on whether the strategy should be based on centralised planning or on nabling market forces and local initiatitive to produce solutions that evolve over time. That split is not just between “left” and “right”. I suspect neither side is “right” or “wrong” and that we will need a traditional English (Scotland and Wales have their own policies) compromise to get the best from both approaches. We have a good model with Government “strategy” toward the railways in the 19th Century, after Prince Albert failed in his attempts to get the railway network centrally planned. The Government used procurement, particularly Admiralty and Post Office “mail contracts”, to support and expedite the lines it wanted for strategic reasons. And every line that wished to use compulsory purchase for parts of its route had to have a Private Act of Parliament – thus funding the start of the Westminster lobbying industry.

Unfortunately many of the players of today are still using nominal speeds and/or other technobabble as a proxy for “fit for purpose” when setting their targets. I have had to use follow up e-mails to tease out what was really being called for. Thus DEFRA believes that a 2mbs sevice is adequate to do Rural Payments Agency submissions on-line. But they appear to mean a genuine 2mbs”, actually delivered, not “best efforts to deliver up to 2mbs, fluctuating according to contention etc.” Over 20% of farmers do not yet receive even the latter. It is unclear when they will do so under current plans. Hence the the new agriculture minister’s announcement (when talking of the new on-line services) of help for those who will need to use, as yet unspecified, Assisted Digital routines. Hence also the reason for the Country Land and Business call for a 2mbs “Universal Service Obligation”, as opposed to a “Commitment”. A guarantee that two 2mbs will be delivered is a much stiffer target than a commitment to provide an “up to 2mbs” service. Stephen Timms was well aware of this when he used the former, when giving an unscripted response to a call for the latter, at the 2009 Parliament and the Internet Conference. Officials have been backtracking on this, under pressure from network operators, ever since.  

That leads to the question of the quality and cost of service needed to reconcile the government agendas of social inclusion and digital by default. I will begin with quality of service and the vexed question of whether faster line speeds give faster services.

Ofcom has just issued some rather patronising guidance on how to speed up your broadband It left out the two main causes of slow response over supposed high speed lines:

  • advertising bloatware: including tracking software which fights with common security software for control, causing the system to slowdown or even hang and
  • traffic management: alias bandwidth rationing, particularly at inter-connection bottlenecks.

I recently mentioned how bloatware can negate the benefit of moving from 7 to 70 megs, linking to my previous call for action by the members of the “Reform Government Surveillance Group” to address this problem if they are serious about the interests of their customers. Resolving this problem is the responsibility of those who wish their customers to access their services on-line – beating up the Internet community and boycotting those who insert intrusive tracking services, as necessary. Government and regulators do, however, have a role in ensuring that consumers have genuine choice. We need to review the role of Ofcom and others in this space, perhaps viewing Browsers, Search Engines and Security Software as part of the communications infrastructure. This shades, of course, into 2015 and the case for an electronic Magna Carta which applies to the Barons (e.g. dominant ICT and ISP players) as well as the King (State).   

Last week I was told that one of those taking a domestic gigabit service from Hyperoptic was receiving little more than 300 megs (as measured by his speed tests) and no better response than from a 100 meg link. The main cause was thought to be traffic management, beginning with where the Hyperoptic fibre linked to the BT network. Incumbents and dominant players like to like tell us that bandwidth rationing is not a problem in the UK and that the net neutrality debate is peculiar to the United States. They are lying. The UK Internet still has more bottlenecks than a brewery. Traffic rationing  is a very real and growing issue in many parts of the UK and requires public debate. It should be raised by those responding to this consultation. I hope that some of the members of ISOC will help lift the lid on the cess pit of hidden deals.

But speed and response times are not the main factor when it comes to reconciling “digital by default” strategies with the on-line world as seen by those most dependent on our public sector health and welfare systems. The key questions include:

Are the on-line services of government usable by the target audience?

How is that usability measured?

Section 1.224 in the 2012  Budget papers on  “Reforms to support growth” read as follows:

“The Government is setting an ambition to make the UK the technology hub of Europe. To support technological innovation and help the digital, creative and other high technology industries the government will … [after a list of other actions]  …. transform the quality of digital public services by committing that from 2014 new online services will only go live if the responsible minister can demonstrate that they can themselves use the service successfully“.

No wonder Ian Duncan Smith is refusing to allow the new DWP systems to go ahead until they have been shown to meet the needs of the target audience. Or has this commitment been quietly dropped as part of the drive for Digital by Default?

Is that why Treasury has exercised its right to be forgotten and the link to the Budget papers from my blog (at the time) no longer works?

A BCS survey of an audience expected to have above average understanding of accessibilty issues indicates that the number requiring “Assisted Digital” support is likely to be very much higher that assumed by the “Digital by Default” enthusiasts. This is partly because of the low level of awareness and understanding among those developing systems and partly because of the lack of motivation among those commissioning them. Hence the need for those wishing to see a faster transition to listen to “OneVoice for Accessible ICT Coalition“. I hope that the Coalition will make a robust submission to the DCMS consultation.  

Finally there is price.

BT’s recent price hike for the mandatory telephone service that goes with any broadband contract has been called a “Football tax” . That and the growing divergence between “headline” wholesale and retail prices accompanied by the plethora of special offers for those who change supplier might be taken as evidence of a profound failure of regulatory policy which needs to be looked at by the DCMS Select Committee when it next meets with Ofcom.

I will stop there and go back to collating more of the inputs that have just come in.