Search This Blog

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Has Digital Britain got talent?

Time for a debate. In light of the DB report, and the discussion, unconferences etc which surround it, Bob Franklin of TelcoConsulting has sent this article through to stimulate the thinking we need for the future. Some very interesting points are raised, and we would welcome your views.

The future of Digital Britain is uncertain. The usual excuses given are lack
of broadband demand, high costs to build fibre to access our homes and
money but the real gap is in understanding why we need big investment
and the benefits for Britain.

The Government’s Digital Britain interim report stresses content but future
services will not be delivered without very much better infrastructure for
fast broadband. The so called last mile of local access networks taking
fibre to a cabinet in the street or up to the home or the use of wireless
technology is absolutely crucial. The existing old copper network of BT
and parts of the cable networks need to be upgraded by deploying new
technology. Further, 50% of homes have no infrastructure choice other
than BT and that cannot be right.

Today the digital information revolution is in its infancy. There will be an explosion of home usage as we seek more information for online shopping, for our education, for our health, entertainment and leisure. Simpler devices throughout the home would dramatically drive up demand and free up the family information
bottleneck -the single PC. Demand is always uncertain for the future –
none of us in the telecoms industry ever predicted the growth in mobile
service and more recently text messaging but the mobile infrastructure
and network capacity was soon built to give users what they wanted and
it makes money for operators.

Build costs are an issue but new infrastructure must be installed to every
town and community. There are alternative access technology solutions,
some can be overhead on poles and digging up the streets is cost effective
given the investment is for the very long term. The Victorian engineers
rightly over engineered the capacity of our London sewers. We have good
civil engineers in Britain today who would build for the future and it would
create lots of new jobs.

On regulation the focus should be encouraging investment while any competition concerns can be resolved given time. Finding the money today is a challenge for everyone. In telecoms it may come from existing operators, new players or the Government. BT and Virgin have proposed some new investment in access and fibre but have financial pressures while a few new small firms and even some local
authorities are interested.

New players would be a real shake up for the sector – maybe a retail giant or a utilities company or some content player should enter. After all we needed a duopoly to get things moving in the 1980s, cable TV led us in the 1990s and additional new players, such as Orange, showed us how in mobile. Big government investment could
stimulate development. In the USA President Obama has announced a significant telecoms public funding programme and Australia have too while Korea and Japan just get on with it anyway.

So what for Digital Britain? Ultimately of course it is the customer who will pay. Some would pay now to get 100Mbit access, most of us can and will pay over time and
those with special needs and poorly served areas should be supported through new universal service funding.

The real gap is not the demand, the build or the money but the lack of understanding and confidence. People do not yet fully understand why they need information via digital services and how they will be used and why pay – this will come in time. Confidence is about doing things well.

With 30 years in this industry, some 15 years ago I wrote that Britain was
the world’s laboratory for the telecoms sector. We must innovate to get
ahead of the game again and invest in infrastructure now and show the
world that Digital Britain has got talent. When an unknown singer can
attract 100 million hits on the web from Britain’s Got Talent think what
social and business benefits let alone innovative talent could be unleashed
with digital access services to 25 million homes in Britain.

We need: existing operators to invest a great deal more - new players to
enter the infrastructure market and the Government to deliver some
target funding, a small sign was given in the recent budget, at areas and
sections of the community for the wider public good. It is time to get off
the line, stop the talking and file all the policy reviews - it's time to start
digging and get Britain’s first mile online.

Bob Franklin
May 2009

1 comment:

Cyberdoyle said...

Britain has got talent, pots and bucketloads, but due to the current infrastructure we can't showcase it to the digital world. Great article, keep writing! chris