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Digital Britain: Nevermind The Media, It's About Online Govt

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With Patrick Smith: Lord Carter, whose interim Digital Britain report landed like a damp squib last month, came out in defensive mood at a Nesta discussion on the report this morning. Media execs of all stripes had pinned their hopes on the report as a roadmap for the online future, but Carter’s guarantee of only 2Mbps country-wide broadband fell way short of South Korea’s average 50Mbps. Turns out Carter was more interested in supporting digital government than digital media

“You can argue whether 2Mbps or 3Mbps or 4Mbps or 5Mbps should be the floor level,” he said. “2Mbps is a basic level of speed that allows you to deliver basic public services, not a base level to use the internet … they’re two different things. Did I ever think it would be a perfect nirvana across the whole country for every user? No, I did not.

“Currently, the only universal service obligation you’re allowed to impose by law is on old-fashioned telephony, 56Kbps. We’re trying to change that to give us the flexibility to roll it out at a higher level. The biggest prize of all for Digital Britain is digital public services.” Carter said, until all citizens have a basic level of connectivity, government cannot switch off “analogue” public info delivery (ie. health leaflets?) as it is doing with TV.

But, even if Carter’s focus is to guarantee public service delivery rather than higher-speed entertainment networks, Carter still has critics. Demos thinktank supremo Charles Leadbetter said the internet could be used to help citizens collaborate on social solutions, not just receive information: “If Britain is not going to be in the lead in terms of speed of broadband, is it the case that we have to be in the lead on how we use it? If you see it simply as a delivery mechanism for TV or other services, I fear you’re missing quite a big point.”

Carter’s defence: “When you’re doing what I’m doing, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. When you’re doing these thematic reports you end up boiling the ocean. These are very real questions – I’m not sure my report has enough freight room to be able to answer them all.”

And he replied to critics who said his 2Mbps vision showed lack of foresight on infrastructure: “I’ll defer to the expert (pointing at Virgin Media (NSDQ: VMED) CEO Neil Berkett) – forecasting’s a tricky business – we’re trying to do as little of that as possible.”

If Carter does achieve universal broadband connectivity, even at 2Mbps, through which to provide digital government, if could mean lost sales for some analogue media. Local and national government agencies spend millions each year on public service advertising, often warning citizens against speeding, obesity etc. Combined with statutory local announcements like planning applications, they form a significant revenue stream especially for local papers.

Also on the panel was former Endemol creative director Peter Bazelgette, who criticised the Competition Commission for stifling creativity: “When it comes to things like Kangaroo and Canvas, whatever the competition issues, we must make sure we find ways that those resources are deployed.” He pointed out that, when the government brokered a merger of Lloyds bank and HBOS, competition law was suspended on public interest grounds — so why not in the digital media sector?

Bazalgette also has another broadside for Carter’s final report: why does PSB funding only go to the BBC or Channel 4, when organisations such as the Tate gallery and the Royal Opera House are producing important cultural works? “It’s not about one organisation or even two: in the new era, there are masses of arts organisations producing their own content which they are distributing themselves.”