Opinion: Digital Britain risks repeating Digital Oz mistakes

Communications minister Lord Carter and his team at the Department Of Culture Media And Sport (DCMS) will be preparing the final Digital Britain report this week, setting out the priorities for the UK's development as a digital nation.

Communications minister Lord Carter and his team at the Department Of Culture Media And Sport (DCMS) will be preparing the final Digital Britain report this week, setting out the priorities for the UK's development as a digital nation, writes Joanne Jacobs, client director, Xenial Ltd.

No policy could be more relevant today. The digital capability of the UK is crucial to its economic recovery, and a poor performance will hurt all industries.

In spite of this, the tenor of the Digital Britain interim report was roundly condemned by the digital media sector for its focus on the needs of traditional media, technology suppliers and telecommunications network operators.

Serious questions must now be asked over the likely effect of the Digital Britain summit, which was the last chance to influence Lord Carter's thinking, as representatives from "old media" vastly outnumbered those from the new.

This is an unfortunate case of déjà vu for me personally. Fortunately, one can look back at what happened with 20:20 vision.

Over a decade ago, Australia was developing a similar "digital" communications policy. For many reasons, including media ownership laws, the policy makers engaged primarily with mainstream media and telecommunications players.

This shut out small firms that wanted to create content and disseminate it differently. It supported the continuing dominance of existing media, and it failed to inspire confidence in digital innovation and creative business.

As a result, potential investment in innovative and creative Australian digital media companies was forced offshore, and the Australian economy lost a huge opportunity. Further, Australia's broadband adoption was hardly inspiring. Australia classes as "broadband" anything up from a 256kbs connection, and the average cost for that speed is £15 per month.

Australia may now be planning for a 12mbps "universal" broadband connection to be delivered to 98% of households, but this will not be completed until 2017. Given that the demand for broadband over the past eight years has grown tenfold, it is likely that by 2017, 12mbps will be about 8mbps too slow.

The UK already has an average 2mbps connection available to 90% of residents, but take-up is at about 67%. There are certainly areas where broadband is still not readily available, but most of us can get a 2mbps connection.

Yet there is still a discrepancy between access and take-up. It is naive in the extreme to assume, as Australia did, that this is because we need bigger pipes.

Never before has the installation of infrastructure created demand for its use, nor has it produced profits overnight. "Telecommunications service providers the world over lost money for the first 50+ years of their operation as networks were being built." It took until the 1960s before they made large profits, and it was much later still before their "pipes" were overloaded.

What has truly driven demand for broadband in the UK, as everywhere else, is the explosion of independent content, and the opportunity for users to connect with each other in new and more interesting contexts. It is about YouTube and Facebook and Twitter - not the BBC or The Times. Or indeed BT.

This is what Digital Britain can and should address: the independent creative digital production and innovation of content. When there is demand for service, broadband service providers will have no problem raising their game, and the money, to meet those needs.

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