Summits provide a great opportunity to get many people together on one single topic, but they always carry the risk of the only output being just a few sound-bites. Alas the Digital Britain Summit seems to have fallen into this trap, the report from Lord Carter may gain some useful feedback from the day long event, but the room never really had a chance to clearly shape the debate and outcome of the report, or for the average consumer or small business to have a say.
At the start of the day when we heard that Gordon Brown was due to give a keynote speech, we thought that perhaps something major would be announced, such as funding over a number of years to ensure a decent USO and keeping the digital divide as narrow as possible. Alas while his speech was well written, it promised nothing, key points being, "We must invest or fall behind" and "Quality that is fit for the future".
The day was split into four major sessions, titled
As can be seen the debate on broadband infrastructure was given 90 minutes, and at the outset we were told that discussion of the 2Mbps USO was off the agenda. We did get to hear Neil Berkett, CEO Virgin Media saying that efforts need to be concentrated outside the cities, i.e. away from where BT and Virgin already have started rolling out services that exceed 25Mbps. Ian Livingston, BT CEO was keen to emphasis the open nature of his firms FTTP/FTTC plans. The BT CEO was bullish in saying that there is no clear need for 100Meg at this time, and 40 to 60Meg will be sufficient for some years, which while something people will not want to hear, is very possibly true. We feel that people are too often chasing high connection speeds, forgetting that what is actually important is how well it runs when most people are online.
The next session revealed some interesting snippets from Japan, in that the country expects to have 100% broadband coverage by the end of 2010, using a mixture of fixed and wireless technologies. Also that 90% of homes will have Fibre to the Home available as an option, (the demographics of Japan mean the proportion of people living in cities is higher). One interesting reason for the high take-up of fibre services is that DSL is actually more expensive than fibre services in Japan.
After lunch the session covering intellectual property got a little heated, with the room for once seeming to give a bad reception to a speaker who appeared not willing to accept that business models from the past may have to change. Some examples of how media firms can embrace file sharing systems, as a way of promoting material were covered.
The final session, saw Stephen Fry make everyone laugh, but he did have some interesting points on things like what is Digital Education, and the session touched on whether Digital was the correct catch-all for the many types of the electronic technologies that are covered by the report.
In summary, individuals can see the dangers of a digital divide and the advantages of a world leading broadband infrastructure, but the stumbling block is who will pay for it. The companies are unable or unwilling at this time, consumers are generally unwilling and the proportion who will embrace premium prices which new fast services are likely to command is probably too small. The government appears to be waiting until it can state clear market failure to service the areas outside the cities, given a General Election is due by the end of 2010, even if the current government were to make a promise of money, we may see a change of government that takes a different tack.
The disappointment of the day is actually reserved for the lack of apparent cross party support. If broadband is to be considered a utility alongside gas, water, and electricity then it needs support across the political spectrum to ensure that five or ten year long plans actually come to fruition, though at present, we have no clear plans in place to worry about.