What will Digital Britain look like in 2009?

In the Orthodox world Christmas is on 6th January. In the Digital world it is expected on 14th January when Santa (Lord) Carter delivers the keynote at the joint Westminster eForum and Media Forum seminar on “Digital Britain” and the opportunities and challenges of convergence.    

I posted my wish list just before Christmas but fear I will be disappointed. I look forward to being wrong but have been told that it will merely hype that which can be agreed by DCMS, the Communications team in BERR and Ofcom – within the constraints of departmental and european policy on the one hand and the collapse of private sector investment on the other.

A recent forecast is that growth in digital advertising will drop to around 7% next year. Meanwhile the cost of anything sourced outside the UK, (including on-line seaching, storage, applications etc., let alone call centres) will have risen by 30 – 50%, depending on how far you expect sterling to fall against the dollar.

The number of advertising funded social networking sites and search engines is therefore likely to also fall sharply at a time when the newly unemployed are becoming increasingly active on-line, whether looking for jobs or entertainment.

On-line markets are therefore likely to begin a slow and painful transition to subscription services, possibly bundled up with community broadband services. That transition will be slower and more painful because it will be resisted by all who hate the idea of customers deciding what they are willing pay for – as opposed to being grateful for what the dominant players, regulators, policy makers and their “expert advisors” decide they should receive.

There are several dozen projects currently in play “to address market failure”: alias the failure of incumbent players to provide what local communities say they want at a price they are willing to pay. Many entail using low cost technologies that are “innovative” only because they do not make money for current dominant players and their suppliers and consultants and do not fit current regulatory and policy frameworks.   

Will Digital Britain be like the railway age: a kaleidoscope of local networks, with a new generation of Brunels reinventing “Gods Wonderful Railway“? – constrained only by a need to use Internet Protocols (as opposed to the standard gauge of two horses in harness) to enable their customers to inter-work with their peers around the world.

Or will government and regulators seek to work with the dominant players to plan and control standardised, centrally co-ordinated, lowest common denominator services?  – thus ensuring that the UK becomes a latter-day Cannery Row, surfing the cybercrud that floats our way