Lord Carter who was recently appointed the first Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting has announced a review of the communications industry that is worth some £56 billion a year to the UK economy.
"Digital Britain is about capturing the opportunities on offer for UK PLC and the public, and advancing our standing as a world leader in these industries.
Our ambition is to see Digital Britain as the leading major economy for innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries. We will seek to bring forward a unified framework to help maximise the UK’s competitive advantage and the benefits to society."Lord Carter talking about the review
The Times has picked up on the review, in particular the hints that public money may be made available to boost connections in addition to the £300 million to be used by 2012 in getting one million families with school age children online. One particular aspect that those who want broadband but cannot get a decent solution is the talk of the introduction of a Universal Service Obligation for broadband.
One immediate thought is that this six month long review follows on from a lengthy report published in September 2008 and as such could be seen as further stalling, while still displaying concern. As the Culture Secretary suggests it is time to move on from the think tank approach and actually start delivering. In six months time when this report is finally published the state of the financial markets may force communications providers to rein in next generation plans. This is very likely if existing sources of affordable credit dry up.
An obligation to provide everyone broadband with a minimum connection speed of 2Mbps would be welcome, currently telephone lines are only required to support a dial-up speed of 0.028Mbps. The danger is in how this is implemented, it could be achieved with satellite broadband, which can make access to interactive services and online gaming difficult, and satellite broadband does have serious capacity limits in terms of launching enough satellites to handle the capacity. The current USO falls heavily on BT, and while spreading it out around other providers looks good on paper, how far does the Virgin Media and C&W networks stretch into Wales, Scotland and areas like Cumbria? BT of course would enjoy being the sole recipient of money to build out a FTTC broadband service outside the commercial areas, but if only BT got this money we may end up with a similar situation in another 10 to 15 years when FTTH upgrades are needed. One aspect often overlooked with fibre to the cabinet solutions, is that the properties on the edge of an exchange area can still have a line that is 3 or 4km long to the nearest cabinet, so while FTTC will be faster for some it will not be next generation for all.
One thing that Scotland and Wales have led the way in, is asking the public to register interest if they want broadband or their service is so slow that it hardly warrants the name 'broadband'. This approach makes some sense as there is little point in spending public money getting broadband to areas where people are not interested in it, and are never likely to use it. What needs to be avoided is for any government to make broadband compulsory, for example, lots of people will have made the choice to not have it at home.
The disruptive nature of broadband is such that any project that is trying to get people online or increase computer awareness, should consider issues like the fact there are millions of games consoles around the UK that can access web pages and that web browsers on mobile phones keep improving so that basic/essential online services do not need a home computer. The rise of bundling in the UK broadband market offers a way for getting lots of people online e.g. there are millions of Sky TV customers who could get a basic functional broadband connection for free. There are probably many more who could also exploit the free or subsidised broadband deals for having a mobile handset as part of a telephone package.
One thing is certain, the communications industry will be lining up for its share of any hand-outs after the billions used to shore up the banking system. The danger with hand-outs or subsidies will be that they can be used to prop up old business models and stifle new entrants to a market who do not have the staff or money to keep bending the ear of ministers.