Two cheers for Lord Carter's Work in Progress

There were rumours that Lord Carter’s Digital Britain Interim report would be postponed because of conflicts between departments and interest groups. Instead he has forced the pace, clearly with the backing of the Prime Minister. That is excellent news, given the importance and urgency of the need for action. Hence the two cheers. The third is, however, reserved because we have yet to fully recover the vision of the previous Govenment.

Lord Carter’s vision of two megs universal service by 2012 is welcome, but is pedestrian compared to his references to UK slippage in global league tables, US ambitions, the French Numerique 2012 plan and Australian and Far Eastern activities. it is also significantly less ambitious than the previous governments objectives for 2002: BT and the Cable companies competing head to head with the broadcasters to provide full motion, TV quality video to the home.

More-over comments on facilitating duct and infrastructure sharing raises fears of a maintenance, and perhaps even increase, in the vulnerability to single points of failure of a society that is now critically dependent on its communications infrastructure.

What has been announced is also less than the vision that Lord Carter outlined to the Westminster Media Forum, but maybe all that is achievable, given the need to restart investment despite the collapse of advertising revenues over the past year and the inability of major players to obtain risk capital. More-over it is an interim report with evidence of both a subtlety of thought and a realism as to what is practical that has been missing for far too long.

I particularly like the short order challenge, supposedly to “industry”, to produce an agreed set of radio spectrum trades by the end of April 2009. The “real” challenge is to Ofcom and to Treasury, including to stop faffing around with concepts like “administrative incentive pricing” (AIP): alias a levy on the operational budgets of public sector users based on guesstimates of what would have been the value of the spectrum used by, for example, the police or ambulance service, had there been a market for it.

Neither challenge will be addressed unless the chief executives of the spectrum dependent supply industries (that currently look set to be driven out of the UK), get their act together and lobby collectively at the top, rather than leave techie to talk to techie – as has been the case for far too long, Carter has put them on the spot. They have to resolve their conflicting vested interests by April or take a gamble on a political decision that might yet be in favour of those whose shareholders would do better if they left and took their jobs with them.

I similarly liked the statement that the “Valuation Office has provided new clear guidance which addresses the problem of clarity over business rates …”. I have yet to find a journalist who can find that guidance. If they are referring to what was on the Valuation Office website today, (apparently placed their the day before the announcement) then some-one has a truly wicked sense of humour. Once again, Carter has very neatly drawn attention to a situation which militates in favour of the incumbments and against innovation and new investment and has to be resolved for his headline objectives to be acheived.

The section on the changing economics of digital content is also well worth reading. Some of the press comment summarises this as a call for a “Rights Agency”. The actual wording of the interim report is beautifully equivocal, and rightly so. “It may be that such an independent objective body may be better able to surmount the mutual tension … If the UK can develop such a working focus, we will ahve an advantage over most other countries,” 

This could be the most reviled Agency since that for Child Support: (piggy-in-the-middle for bitter feuds between those who can never be reconciled). Or it could uniquely position the UK as knowledge broker for the world. The report refers to a note on the responses to the consultation on P2P file sharing on the BERR website “None of the options … attracted widespread support. Rather there was a marked polarisation …”

ApComms, PITCOM and EURIM have agreed to co-operate in organising political response to the Interim Report and the EURIM Communications Group has a meeting on 9th February to look at where it can add value. The most obvious area is that whihc is not mentioned in the interim Carter report: the need for authoritative guidance as to what is good practice in procuring local, regional and national community networks, including those funded by mixes of public and private funding, as will almost certainly be necessary for many, perhaps most.

Such guidance needs the imprimature of the Audit Commission, National Audit Office and Office of Government Commerce, not BERR and DCMS. It is a logical add-on to EURIM’s current short order exercise to help identify and publicise the guidance relevant to flexible, scalable service delivery procurements which involve the use of ICT.

There are great deal to digest in the Carter’s interim report and I have yet to tackle the sections on digital audio, public service broadcasting et al. I very much hope it will be the start of a constructive dialogue that will indeed lead to the removal of barriers to investment and growth but we have been here before.

Peter Mandelson’s comment accompanying the press release on the report that “our most valuable assets are the skills and innovation that underpin our digital industries” uncannilly echoes Mrs Thatcher’s concluding remarks in her keynote address at the Barbican Conference to end IT Year (1982) when, after quoting from Kipling’s “The Secrets of the Machines” – she said that “Our task is to foster,nourish and tend the children of our brains as they develop onto the great industries of the future”.

And Andy Burnham’s comment is also most apposite – he says of the interim Carter report “it is only the beginning of of the process and we need to work hard in the coming months to secure workable solutions.”

In her keynote address in 1982, Mrs Thatcher also said “We are determined to encourage cable systems. This is not just for mere entertainment, but eventually for a huge range of two-way services. it’s possible to do mail order by cable: to read a train timetable by cable : even to choose your holiday – complete with colour pictures of the surf breaking outside your hotel …By our broad acceptance of the recommendations of Lord XXXX, we believe that the best traditions of our existing broadcasting services can be maintained …I hope that, when our detailed proposals are made available next spring, cable development will proceed as speedily as possible … ” ?

It took rather than she expected – mainly because Treasury then scrapped the 100% Capital Allowances that would have driven the infrastructure investment at the pace being predicted. But, even so, by the time Al Gore discovered the Internet, BT had already laid fibre to within a kilometre of most of the UK population. Networks capable of delivering 25 megs synchronous to home had already been installed in, or example, West London (General Cable, later merged into what is now Virgin Media) and West Malling (BT): albeit neither could be used to do so because of “regulatory problems”.

Meanwhile Rupert Murdoch, not regulators nor Treasury, had wrecked the business plans for inter-active satellite services, including data broadcasting, to add another dimension to communications competition – albeit BSkyB and others were most of the services originally envisaged for launch in the late 1980s.

By 1997 Conservative policy had evolved from duopoly to “Competition in the local loop” – with the clearly stated aim of allowing BT and the Cable Companies to compete head to head with terrestrial broadcasters in delivering entertainment quality video, plus inter-active services, to the home by 2002.

Then Labour’s young Turks, having seen that the Cable company’s investment programmes were running late because of problems with planning permissions and protests over road works, decided the Conservative policy had failed. They switched from competition in the local loop to local loop unbundling – with predictable (and predicted) consequences: the local fibre roll-out programmes of BT and the Cable companies stopped dead.

In parallel the definition of broadband was downgraded from “that necessary to carry full motion video” (i.e. 4 – 8 megs) to “always on Internet” at 512k (i.e. e-mail  and videostreaming).

Back in 1978 my first published prediction, on “Video in the year 2000”, was for high definition domestic videotelphony with in-line editing (so that I could change my image and also the background – three stone off my wieght and a tidy office). Back in 1995 I remember being told that AT&T and its peers would be in serious trouble if the American public were not willing to pay, by 2000, at least 10% more for full motion video than they did then for plain old telephony – with payment for content on top.

Two weeks ago I spent an hour on Skype with a former US homeland cybesecurity czar xon. I had a low quality, clunky matchbox video image in the corner of the screen – it made a grat difference to the chemistry but was nowhere my vision for nearly a decade ago.

Can Carter make a difference?

He has the vision. It is up to us to help him succeeed.