Monday, March 22, 2010

Broadband confirmed as an election issue


...as if it wasn't already. In a session that appears to have been set up purely to brief the press, as I can find no reference to any audience or context in any of the coverage, Gordon Brown made a speech this morning on building Britain's digital future. The speech seems a direct response to the Conservative's technology manifesto (see this previous post for more on this), stressing as it does the need to make more public services available online and put more and more data in the public domain.

But it's the announcements about super-fast broadband which have been the focus of much of the coverage. To quote from the speech:
“Now government must decide what action it will take to bring about universal access to the next generation of superfast broadband, simultaneously ensuring the highest quality content is available online and available to all. The choice with broadband infrastructure is clear. We can allow unbridled market forces to provide a solution on its own terms and according to its own timetable as others would do. The result would be superfast broadband coverage determined not even by need or social justice, or by the national interest but by profitability alone. This would open a lasting, pervasive and damaging new digital divide.  It would allow the country to become split between a fast-track and a slow-track to the future, between those fortunate to live in densely-populated areas and those not. But to concede a willingness to have superfast broadband reserved for some rather than for all also betrays a total failure to grasp the scale of the educational, economic and social opportunities that it brings.”
While I concur with the intent expressed in the above, especially the very real risk of a new digital divide emerging, a couple of things strike me. First, I think it's a bit rich to criticise some un-named "others" (as if we didn't know) for intending to allow "unbridled market forces to provide a solution", when up until the release of the final Digital Britain report less than a year ago, this was precisely the approach the current administration had taken. Second, given the widely stated opposition to the 50p tax, on the basis of both its alleged unfairness and, more specifically, because it's been argued that it simply won't generate sufficient funds, is it also arguable that adopting such a mechanism to support NGA "betrays a total failure to grasp the scale of the educational, economic and social opportunities that it brings"?

I think the solution lies somewhere in between the approaches espoused by the two parties, combining elements of both. I don't think we can just rely on the market to deliver what we urgently need, however many barriers to investment are removed through measures like sub-loop unbundling, duct sharing and dark fibre access. Some money needs to be found from somewhere to drive NGA roll-out. This ideally needs to be made available in a way that encourages the development of a new (or a consolidated and extended existing?) public infrastructure as a national, rather than commercial, asset.

I don't think the current Next Generation Fund is the right vehicle for this, and I think there are some valuable lessons we can learn from developments in the US, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The question of whether taxpayers' money should be used to fund NGA at all (as the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones considers on his blog) is an interesting one. To my mind, it all depends what it's spent on. If it's used to develop a national, open access, universally available public asset that benefits everyone, then I'm very comfortable with that. The OECD summed this up very succinctly:
"When the public pays for broadband investment they should expect to benefit from improved service and greater choice in the market place. One means to accomplish this is to ensure that networks built or augmented using any public funding are available via “open access” rules, meaning network providers offer access or capacity to all market participants on cost-based, non-discriminatory terms."
However, if public funds go straight to telcos and other providers, to subsidise the development of commercial, privately owned assets that can be subsequently exploited for many years to come, then I'm not so sure.

No comments:

Post a Comment