Digital Britain – Presentation of final report, Lord Carter

The Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting is in Edinburgh at an RSA Fellows’ Media Creative Industries, Culture & Heritage Network hosted event, at the Royal College of Physicians. There are lots of academics here; TV execs; board members of NDPBs like Scottish Arts Council; Scottish Enterprise; a few film makers; a few indies. 1 jeans in every 20 suits.

The summary of the key points in the report is available here.

This blog entry isn’t trying to summarise the 246 page report, or Lord Carter’s presentation of it! My point of interest is from the cultural sector, so I’m listening with that filter on – Lord Carter is a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company for a start! However, from a read of the summary of the report and a scan of the big report, its more about pipes than poetry.

[Point 1] Digital connectivity: The communications infrastructure has to be addressed, and is being, through finding the cash to upgrade the UK’s telecoms networks .

 

  • BRIC countries have dedicated Ministries for Communications and Technology. This leads to singularity on regulation: not the picture in the UK. Therefore, a report TO government has been the best way forward: you can make suggestions from the outside in, bring more plurality. Basically the report recommends deregulation over regulation, which will allow business models to emerge as the market decides what it wants.
  • Broadband is now at highest levels in government as a utility, so that’s why there’s a fund to expand the network 100% nationwide. The choices for how the funding of the network upgrade (next gen fibre networks) are being mapped out. The levy at retail level as a subsidy on fixed line is the best way to produce a cash flow of c. £150m pa, which over 7 years would create enough cash to create 90% of the UK to have fibre by 2017 (this could raise broadband speeds to c. 40Mbs, 100Mbs if you pay for the fibre to go from the street cabinet to your house). Questions about this levy increasing budgets, and therefore shareholder value for PLCs (e.g. BT, Virgin Media), were raised during the debate: equity subsidy into the cash flow fund for upgrade should also be considered.

What I think: this is GOOD. We will have a country where connectivity is pretty much guaranteed anywhere, even if the speed is not. Although the 2Mbs is the floor not the ceiling aspiration.

[Point 2] Digital Economy: But the report also accepts that what is currently happening with technology is disruptive – its not just a natural upgrade process, and so the UK needs help with changing industries to be effective : this needed if we’re to have a quality Digital economy.

  • The Digital Economy is essential to the UK’s competitiveness. The report positions this argument at the centre of government, with 25 proposals and 26 recommendations, and that’s why this report is so important. A digital economy bill should be passed in the next parliamentary session.
  • Industry being supported by digital test beds to promote innovation and experimentation around digital content – the one for the creative industries will funded by the TSB
  • new channel 4; and new regulation 

What I think: this is GOOD – government is admitting that digital is changing our economic make-up, and so will provide industry with support. There’s cash for innovation, and ongoing discussion on new “broadcasting” landscape.

Finally, the last main point is about digital participation.

  • The liberation of the wireless spectrum is the bit of the report that the newspapers have missed: extend 3G services to voice spectrum and incentives to encourage 4G mobile (mobile broadband) to be provided by mobile operators – this strengthens the broadband network further, coming closer to 100% at the floor of 2Mbs.
  • Issues in participation – digital divide is compounding itself: those who are not connected at home are not connected at work. Public service delivery cannot happen if 35% of nation are not online anywhere and don’t have the skills to participate. 
  • The guaranteed provision of independent, impartial news outside the BBC and C4 is explained: you can only guarantee the provision if the strong existing commercial companies Channels 3&5 exist – these are editorially competitive to the standard of the BBC. (Apparently, UGC and other commercial companies cannot provide the level of impartiality required – they don’t have to, and sit outside the regulatory framework and sector rules that the broadcasters submit to).
  • Digital content points: regulation around piracy has been created, and its not 3 strikes and you’re off the internet! But a regulatory framework is now there that will penalise pirates, and it has been established to help rights owners benefit from new business models emerging.

This is BAD – although participation being recognised as an issue is GOOD, its only in relation to people being able to connect to government services (so if they can all do that digitally, government saves on having to make other formats available). Digital participation as a social problem is not discussed as part of the report, its parked, and we’re to discuss it as social matter. Also content isn’t dealt with in any other format than news.

Questions

Fiona Campbell, Voluntary Arts Scotland: what if people can’t afford the phone bill or the kit?

LC: This is a significant social policy issue: but all utility bills are hard to pay… but at least telecoms bills have come down in relation other utilities, and should continue to come down.

Social isolation – does going digital in terms of public services mean that those excluded from society already (eg. school refusers, the elderly) become more excluded?

LC: No, social networks allow the balance of this, but there should be a robust debate about this. [And some people won’t have the skills to participate in social networks].

Blair Jenkins: Essence of debate in Scotland: we need to have proper competition for BBC in Scotland – the Scottish Digital network can provide this in Scotland [LC: but its got money]. However, the emerging public service content sector may be defined UK wide – this will be a disappointment for Scotland who already have a successful model of delivering local news through PPPs.

LC: Agrees there is a case for funding primarily news content produced by not the usual suspects (pilots in Scotland and Wales). However, children’s content and cultural content are also important, and time will tell whether there is a case for funding it. The debate is ensuing about other public service deficits in terms of content over and above news, and whether they should get subsidy, and the debate will broaden once news pilot is more established.

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