The Digital Britain Final Report – we want your views

Too little, too late?

This post looks at the response to the Digital Britain Report, as well as asking how this effects us in our region. Hull Digital was interviewed on the BBC Radio Humberside breakfast show which you can listen to below:

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Earlier in the week, the final Digital Britain report was released to an expectant Great Britain. It has generated a huge amount of coverage, which unsurprisingly, is very mixed. Rory Cellan Jones from the bbc (http://twitter.com/ruskin147) has posted on the their technology blog here, and has attracted a huge number of comments, universally negative towards the Government’s report.

What really stood out was this:

This morning, as he visited the Crystal Palace digital television transmitter, the Prime Minister made an extraordinary promise. Just hours before the publication of Digital Britain, he said this:

“Britain’s going to lead the world. This is us taking the next step into the future, being the digital capital of the world, making the necessary investment.”

This is categorically a BLATANT lie and more evidence that this report is woefully inadequate and 10 years too late. How we (the UK) can expect to be the “digital capital of the world” with the target of 2mb broadband is not only misguided, but frankly, plain rude, arrogant and misjudged.

Do they, the Government, really think that the UK population are that stupid to believe this?

Adam Westbrook, a local media journalism commentator and reporter summed it up very well on his recent post here:

The Promise: 2Mbps broadband for everyone (and “action separately to address the issue of next generation broadband”)

Result?: epic fail. While broadband for everyone is great, 2Mbps [...buffering...] broadband is inadequate for [...buffering...] the growing needs of digital journalism including [...buffering...] the huge demand for [...buffering...] video on demand. Separate action to [...buffering...] investigate faster broadband looks like [...buffering...] the buck being well and truly passed.

With the icing on the cake being that we, the public are being asked to fund this next generation broadband with a £6 per year tax levy. The £6 amount is neither here or there, but it is the fundamental principle that WE are being asked to pay for something that Governments should have done 10 years ago.

Finances, the jaw dropping truth

It has been estimated that it would cost around £27bn to install fibre country-wide. That you might say is a whole lot of cash.

But, to put this in perspective, we spend around £1bn per year just in Iraq.

Yes, £27bn is a big figure, but surely, a necessary one? Just think of the business benefits that it would bring? Anyway, as mentioned before,  4 words come to mind. Too little, too late.

So what do the Digital Britain measures include?

  • A three-year National Plan to improve Digital Participation
  • Universal Access to today’s broadband services by 2012
  • Next Generation fund for investment in tomorrow’s broadband services
  • Digital radio upgrade by the end of 2015
  • mobile spectrum liberalisation, enhancing 3G coverage and accelerating Next Generation mobile services
  • robust legal and regulatory framework to combat Digital Piracy
  • support for public service content partnerships
  • a revised digital remit for Channel 4
  • consultation on funding options for national, regional and local news

There are lots of worthwhile areas of focus here, but it still comes back to what the vast majority of people relate to, and that is broadband speed.

How does this effect us here in Hull?

The simple answer is that we just don’t know yet. There are many questions to be asked, one being do we need to pay the £6 tax / levy for NGN (next generation network) investment? Being in a unique, and frankly, very unpopular positon here in Hull, with our local ISP / teleco, Kingston Communications / Karoo there would need to be written and concrete assurance that something was also being done here to catapult us onto NGNs.

What is certain that with Digital Region and NYnet, there is an understanding that something MUST change and soon.

It is also hugely encouraging that there seems to be a real groundswell in feeling, people-power, and concern in the area, with Hull Digital and Humber Mud starting to become noticed, and actively participating with the Council and Hull Forward to ensure that we are not left behind.

Your say

The Digital Britain report is a cornerstone in our future, not only personally but also for business.

We want to hear your views, not only about our region and how the report effects us, but what you think about the country, and is it enough?

What is certain, it remains very controversial, and it is clear that Gordon Brown is still using a 56K modem.

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  • Ian Cleary

    The issue *is* complex and “the right solution” will require both technological and economic compromises.

    The cries of “too little, too late” are not helpful really, as the UK *has* left it too late, and *has* set the target at a very low bandwidth level. We need a starting place for debate and this appears to be it, for better or for worse.

    Let us discuss, evaluate, design and implement a solution that *does* work, rather than bemoaning the abilities of government to spoon-feed us a dream scenario… we are not a nation of weak minds or bottom feeders, are we?

    The present infrastructure in the UK does not support the modest ambitions that the belated Digital Britain report lays out. Therefore investment is needed in order to deploy new technology and somebody has to be motivated to pay for this.

    We can leave this problem in the hands of private industry; in which case there needs to be a tangible opportunity for a business that makes the investment to then secure a sufficient number of customers paying a sufficient price in order to cover the investment within a reasonable time and deliver a profit on top of this. A tough business case to build in a depressed market where customers are eroding prices and demanding multiple supplier choice as a default.

    In the absence of a viable opportunity for a private company to deliver a service that can be operated profitably, the population could fund through taxation a public investment in the technology required to deliver a universal broadband service. However the public tolerance of taxation is not infinite and so compromise is required by the government on where other taxes can be relieved to accommodate this.

    Where the report fails, for me, is in the lack of a clearly defined statement of requirements. It’s not good enough that us geek types are dismayed at the availability of multi-Mbps services in rural areas… we need to place the requirements in the context of real need and the delivered benefits / cost saving opportunities for the public purse that a tax-funded universal access solution would deliver. This is not work for the selfish.

    In some areas (Grampians, North Wales, East Anglia) it will be more difficult and proportionally more expensive to deliver high speed broadband service to homes than in others (Manchester, London, Leeds, Glasgow). Demand also fluctuates regionally, and as much as the Labour government may wish to envision digital teleworkers residing in idyllic remote locations… it ain’t happening guys…. However, we do live in times where the traditional infrastructures that support rural communities (rail networks, post offices, publicly owned support services) are dysfunctional, and a digital alternative could provide some answers to problems in these other areas.

    It will remain an immovable fact that it is cheaper and less complicated to deliver high-speed broadband in a densely populated geographic area than in a sparsely populated one… and the report seems to take a “lowest common denominator” approach. We *do not* need to rely either on one base-level speed or to base the entire strategy upon one technology.

    The future of digital Britain *is* best funded from the public purse, it should reflect the needs of diverse geographic and economic areas, it should be conscious of the applications that will run on the network and this network should be leveraged to deliver savings from other publicly funded services which could migrate to this network. This “network of networks” must use diverse available technologies rather than assume expensive hard-wired service provision and it should be secured by an updated regulatory framework that is more capable than OFCOM to consider policies relating to provision of an extremely broad spectrum of services.

    It is a time to unite around the problem, NOT to let it divide us… strong and rational public debate will be key to resolving our disappointment!

  • http://hulllug.com Dave Harding
  • http://imranali.name Imran Ali

    Britain is a *post-digital* society.

    Smart people are already building, pipes, networks and infrastructure – we have a reasonably competitive and accessible market.

    So what’s gonna flow through all that infra?

    What’s the additive value that we as a society are going to use this infra for?

    Cultural, commercial & civic innovation is more significant than some fiber, copper & radio lines.

    We needed a Post-Digital Britain report that illustrates paths to the future, not one that seeks to patch the past.

  • Ian Cleary

    Imran,

    Can you clarify what you mean by “post-digital” society? I don’t understand what that statement means.

    There exists ample service provider choice and capacity within many cities for sure, but when you get to areas such as those I highlighted earlier (Grampians, North Wales and East Anglia… although I could have also mentioned Cornwall, Devon and others) there is not always an alternative network to BT (or Kingston Communications in Hull).

    It is also often the case that the BT copper (predominantly) infrastructure may be old or degraded, impairing provision of broadband services and limiting the available service speeds for Internet access and capability to support services such as VoIP / IPTV etc.

    Or are we only catering for the Internet needs of a small and exclusive “digital elite”? Taxpayers tend to get quite upset about that kind of thing, examples being the MP expenses scandal and the 2012 London Olympics. :-)

    Without addressing the underlying infrastructure issues you will not be able to address the service layers that you allude to as “additive value”… I think that it would be naive to limit “Digital Britain” to issues of “web”, there are very many services that could migrate to IP connectivity (IP-enabled utility metering, as an example).

    The cultural, commercial and civic innovation you mention to will rely upon a fast and ubiquitous infrastructure. You can build social networking, SaaS and e-government applications without this, they can be very well hosted within datacentres without this… but without a suitable access network they will be deprived of an audience and will not realise their commercial potential

    The service provider / infrastructure stuff is not sexy or glamorous and lacks the style and excitement of the software / web / OS / application developer communities… but it is a critical part of the bigger picture, and these businesses are expensive and complicated organisations.

    As dull as it may sound, I truly believe that one of the most pressing matters, and one that is not adequately addressed in Digital Britain, is the resolution of Internet regulatory frameworks… nationally and internationally.

    There is so much ambiguity surrounding legislation for network neutrality and privacy matters, so much unresolved confusion over anti-terror obligations and such commercial complexity in the regulated provider space for each market that it is impossible for non-governmental organisations like telcos to make confident investments in network at the local loop level. As consumers we add to this problem by demanding ever cheaper broadband and multi-play services and refusing to accept any usage limits or pay-as-you-use models for bandwidth consumption.

    Using VERY broadly brushed numbers… a typical broadband exchange costs about £250k to deploy, with OPEX costs of about 20% per annum on top. This can service up to 200 – 500 homes, each wishing to pay around £15 per month at most for their broadband… so on that initial investment, plus 20% OPEX (limited only to COGS and excluding all S&GA costs like installation of service, customer services, transit network, peering network, billing… etc etc.), the service provider will (assuming that they win the customers in the first place) earn revenue of between £36k – £90k per year.

    Most corporate organisations will require payback within 3 years on such an investment… the sums for universal access over 2Mbps just do not add up! It’s not possible to service a rural village with perhaps only 50 customers. I’m sure that you’ve observed yourself that the UK ISP market has consolidated aggressively over the last five years? This is because it’s not possible to make profitable business from the vast majority of residential ISP services, and only providers that can bundle Internet service provision with other hugely more profitable services are staying in this market.

    This is why it is very important that we share knowledge at our level and seek to understand and embrace a wide and diverse range of possible access methods, from cellular wireless to municipal wifi and wimax, DSL and CATV networks, FTTx… or what have you… depending on the requirements and the subscriber numbers, the application requirements and the security needs there is a place in “the REAL Digital Britain” for each of these technologies.

    You need to patch the past to serve the present, you need to roadmap the future to move forward from the patched present! :-)