Digital Britain expected to leave key points unanswered

The Digital Britain report expected this afternoon is likely to disappoint many.

The Digital Britain report expected this afternoon is likely to disappoint many.

Many of the issues it addresses are subject to efforts to create a single pan-European market for telecommunications. As such, key aspects of the report, such as spectrum allocation, file sharing and privacy are hostage to fortunes being negotiated in Brussels and Strasbourg.

In particular, communications minister Stephen Carter is expected to leave unanswered the crucial question of how to fund the extension of high-speed internet access to everyone, a cost estimated as high as £27bn by the Broadband Stakeholders Group, a multi-interest lobby group.

No matter what Carter produces, it will be tainted by the fact that he will leave it to others, most probably business secretary Peter Mandelson, to implement, when he leaves government in the parliamentary summer recess.

The report is expected to provide the country with a roadmap of how Britain can gear itself to compete in a world where competition is based more and more on knowledge and the ability to turn it into products and services.

Philip Virgo, spokesman for parliamentary-industry body Eurim, described its ambition as providing a "cross-cutting blueprint for an industrial strategy in the information age".

Network owners and music and video publishers have lobbied vigorously for protection for their existing and proposed investments. But Carter's view is likely to be tempered by a recent finding of communications regulator Ofcom's consumer panel that 42% of adults will not use such a service, even it is cheap and available, because there is nothing on it that interests them enough to bother.

This goes to the heart of an earlier criticism of the interim report, acknowledged by Carter, that it did little to address consumers' concerns, or those of content creators.

Businesses' interest in the report has centred on the question of competition. The Communications Management Association, whose members spend some £15bn a year on communications, said that businesses' interests were best served through encouraging and increasing competition among network operators.

In its Digital Britain manifesto published in February, the CMA called for Ofcom to monitor competition continuously to ensure that it was effective and sustainable, especially outside of the main cities.

The CBI, the UK's largest business lobby group, concurred. In a submission on the European Telecommunications Package, it "strongly supported" efforts to create a single market in communications and sought the promotion of competition through increased political independence and operational effectiveness for national regulatory authorities. A CBI spokesman said, "Our views with respect to the Carter report are unchanged from that."

The CMA called for universal access to broadband, preferably faster than the 2Mbps government has said it will ask for. "But universal broadband access isn't enough by itself to guarantee our future," CMA chairman Carolyn Kimber said.

"Unless effective policies are in place to prevent anti-competitive restrictions on the use of the new networks, we could face a return to a monopoly in both infrastructure and services," she added.

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