Reactions to Digital Britain

Rarely has an 80-page report on telecommunications policy been so eagerly anticipated as Lord Carter’s Digital Britain interim report, published in January 2009.
It was hoped that the report – really a consultation document published in advance of a final report due later this year – would be analogous to the ‘broadband stimulus’ component of Barack Obama’s proposed economic recovery plan in the US, which seeks to secure $1 billion to radically improve the country’s Internet infrastructure.

But on close inspection, the report was revealed to be an interesting summary of the present state of the UK’s equivalent infrastructure combined with some well-meaning if vague statements of intent.

It is hard to criticise the government’s avowed commitment to improving the UK’s digital infrastructure, and promoting a commercial and legal environment in which digital services can flourish. But many commentators have decried a lack of specific action points that would bring them about.

After all, it is not a lack of belief in technology that slows the progress of Digital Britain, but a complex mesh of technical, commercial and legal issues. Many of these require the government to take a stand, as, for example, in the case of spectrum ‘refarming’.

The law allows GSM spectrum to be reused for 3G services, but those companies with a licence to broadcast on the 900Hz bandwidth (Vodafone and O2) would be able to provide a better service than those with an 1800Hz licence (T-Mobile and Orange). The latter are therefore opposing refarming the bandwidth, and the dispute is making it hard for mobile operators of all stripes to plan ahead. As Ovum’s Matthew Howett explains, here is a specific issue that needs resolution, not vague promises for the future.

As for the report’s headline goal – to ensure the availability of a 2Mb per second broadband connection to every home by 2012 – reaction was starkly divided between those who believed it was impossible, and those who believe it is unambitious. And again, interested parties lamented a lack of specifics, such as who was going to pay for this universal broadband.

“Extended access to broadband for businesses and households has to be the right way forward, but there must be a dialogue between business and government about how this can be funded,” said deputy director-general of the CBI John Cridland.
As a statement of intent, it was found lacking. But if the goal of the Digital Britain interim report to was to stimulate reaction, it hit a home run.
 
Matthew Howett, senior analyst at Ovum, says the report missed an opportunity to resolve a sticking point that is holding back the progress of mobile services
 
The dispute over spectrum refarming needs resolving. This is a real stumbling block; a lot of mobile operators are saying that they are not going to bid in future Ofcom auctions until it is resolved.
The government could either intervene and take back and redistribute the 900Hz spectrum, or make some concessions to Vodafone and 02 in return for handing the spectrum over. This is what a lot of people were expecting to see in the report, but we haven’t reached any kind of conclusion.

Nick Jones, an analyst at Gartner, made it clear on his own blog that he found the report’s broadband ambitions distinctly underwhelming
 
This report doesn’t assume many major changes in technology, human, or corporate behaviour. It assumes that 2Mbps ought to be a reasonable goal for minimum universal broadband by 2012, but one of the few enduring messages of the Internet is that you always need more bandwidth, even if you don’t yet know what it’s for. By 2012, 2Mbps will seem as outdated as pigeon post. I’d have been more impressed by a universal goal of 100Mbps, even if they had to push the date to 2014.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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