30 January 2009

Digital Britain: the triumph of hope over experience

Lacklustre and improbable are two words that spring to mind in the wake of the Government’s interim Digital Britain report, published yesterday by Lord Carter.

It’s frankly bizarre that something heralded, just last October, as ‘an action plan to secure the UK’s place at the forefront of innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries’, should have as its goal 2Mb broadband connections countrywide by 2012 – even if that is the minimum, not maximum.

Given speeds already available from many ISPs for both business and private houses, that’s a snail’s pace. What’s more, it’s barely able to handle today’s online requirements, certainly in the media, communications and entertainment worlds.

And then there’s the small matter of cost? With an estimated price tag for rolling out even a 2Mb infrastructure country-wide around the 15 billion mark, who is going to pay? ISPs, telecom companies, mobile phone providers?

Given the spread of problem-ettes in the media and 24-hour news worlds right now, combined with the near global recession driving even the hugely lucrative telecom, high tech and electronics giants to shed jobs and issue profits warnings, it’s hard to imagine magnanimity from these directions.

Couple that to a fit of the wobbles where PPI initiatives are concerned and a UK public purse already groaning under the weight of a 20-plus year payback for the excesses of the last few months – or more accurately, years – and Digital Britain looks very, very interim indeed.

As the CBI’s deputy director-general, John Cridland says: “Extended access to broadband for businesses and households has to be the right way forward, but there must be a dialogue between business and government about how this can be funded. The Government must also put in place the right conditions for essential investment in next generation broadband.”

And he adds the equally obvious skills point: “As access to digital services is as much about skills as it is about infrastructure, the Government is right to highlight the need to improve digital literacy.”

We wait with bated breath for the final report in the spring.

Brian Tinham

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