Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Digital Britain misses a trick

"The internet is a global phenomenon." So states para 14 of the Digital Britain report. Thanks. Against my better instincts I ploughed on regardless. It turns out that it's not a bad effort after all.

I like the levy to fund to next generation of broadband internet. If the first generation added 0.5%-1% to GDP, it is well worth the public intervention and investment.

Channel 4 will remain in public ownership and could even receive a slice of the license fee pie. Good. Its 4iP innovation fund is exactly the type of smart thinking we need if we are to secure the massive opportunities offered by ever-faster internet for all. Projects such as Talk about Local would not be able to innovate without the investment. A new way of thinking about public service media indeed and 4iP are leading us in the right direction.

Which leads me to my major criticism of the report. It wrestles with two concurrent concepts- there are infrastructure providers who are commercial then there are content providers who are a mixture of things but who find it much more difficult to survive commercially unless they have a off-line parent (e.g. Guardian online.) This division stifles creativity and public service.

The monumental historical error was the privatisation of the BT network (as opposed to the service provider elements.) In so doing, the government lost control of the ability to engender creativity. Whoever your service provider, if they are providing it over BT's lines they are able to cream off a line rental. The growth of Virgin Media has lessened to issue to a certain extent- at least there is now choice. But the choice is between two commercial providers who simply care about getting you to subscribe to as many of their services as possible- TV, phone, internet. They don't have a public or community ethos at heart.

Alongside this, you have the possibility for truly creative rich online content. Not just the news content that the Digital Britain report seems obsessed with but also new ways of delivering public services, new community services, new ways of receiving expanding reservoirs of information (including government data which the report mentions), and communicating with one another. These things are often non-commercial. So it's fine if the Guardian or BBC or the Government funds them- though in the latter case they have been woefully unimaginative. But what if you want to provide rich community content or local authorities want to unite with other local service providers, e.g. NHS, schools, and colleges to improve community life through use of the internet?

Well, these services are not commercially viable so the creativity doesn't happen. But what if the content was linked to the profitable bit, i.e. the infrastructure? What if community or public service content was provided in conjunction with the pipe? What if chunks of the infrastructure were loaned out at competitive rates to allow such content to thrive? A private company would have difficulty doing that- their concern is maximising shareholder value.

For this innovation to happen there needs to be a more imaginative approach than private companies will normally provide. There needs to be an understanding about how innovation can improve the quality of life for people in communities. We missed a trick with BT and the growth of Virgin Media subsequently means that the time has passed.

Digital Britain doesn't confront this central structural issue: the people who make the money from infrastructure are not currently those who are best placed to facilitate the innovation that enables communities to grow in imaginative ways. But if there is to be public investment through a levy in the next generation of broadband, why not use the leverage from that to secure richer community and public service content- even for imaginative local newspapers? The recipients of the investment should demonstrate that they have worked to make such content commercially viable by, for example, allowing content providers to provide broadband services at competitive rates.

It is a economy driven report in many respects which is an observation not a criticism. It will have a positive impact on the British economy and the quality of British life and should be applauded for that. But it is disappointingly cautious and rooted in many ways in the world that we are moving away from rather than the world to which we could be heading. Still we are not convincingly entering the internet age in terms of how in can radically improve our quality of life as opposed to simply making us wealthier. Digital Britain is more quantity than quality driven but at least this report means that we won't be left behind.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, agree totally with communities having content, but the much lauded 'information superhighway' is not going to happen from the digitalbritain report. Only the cities and towns will have access to the capacity needed to deliver this service, communities in rural or indeed many urban areas will be stuck with 2 meg for many years to come. No provision has been made to provide NGA for 90% of the UK land mass.