Opinion: Crunch time for future of Digital Britain

I suspect even little green men in galaxies far, far away now know about Digital Britain. Ultimately, it is all about ­exploration.

Vanessa Barnett

Vanessa Barnett

As Lord Carter told us in his introduction to his report this month: “On 26 August 1768, when Captain James Cook set sail for Australia, it took two years and 320 days before he returned to describe what he found there.

Yesterday, on 15 June 2009, 20 hours of new content were ­posted on YouTube every minute, 494 exabytes of information were transferred seamlessly across the globe, more than 2.6bn mobile minutes were exchanged across Europe, and millions of enquires were made using Google’s algorithm. The ­digital World is a reality in all our lives.”

Even Gordon Brown agrees: “Only Digital Britain can unlock the imagination and creativity that will secure for us and our children the highly skilled jobs for the future. Only a Digital Britain will secure the wonders of an information revolution that could transform every part of our lives. Only a Digital Britain will enable us to demonstrate the vision and dynamism that we have to shape the future.”

Important stuff then, but we have all known our place in the digital economy is critical for success for many years. Can Digital Britain save our souls, or have the bankers sent them to hell already? There is no arguing that the Digital Britain report is weighty and well written. A great deal of time and care has been spent by a team of very committed people to draw together what Britain must focus on moving forward. However, for most it still seemed a disappointment.

A key piece in the Digital Britain ­puzzle is that we all need to be connected on high-speed broadband. In the coming years it will not be something we choose to do so that we can shop and ­communicate more efficiently, but a necessity so we can get educated, earn a living and ­interact with the Government.

How is it being funded? You and me: a tax of 50p per month for each fixed-line connection. That money goes into a pool to fund broadband roll-out. Although anyone can tender for some money, you would have to guess that most of it is going to BT. Who else has the ­infrastructure and people on the ground to really get the job done?

There are also things in Digital Britain that could be of real benefit if they ­actually do see the light of day. These are the things that have not been vociferously lobbied for. For example, the home access scheme for low-income families to get PCs. If kids cannot acquire IT skills, then kids will not get jobs.

Of course, we all know what kids do with PCs, so Digital Britain also sets out the Government’s current thinking on tackling those pesky downloaders (or “freetards” as The Register calls them).

It turns out that no one had the guts to form the all-powerful Rights Agency as previously mooted in the interim report, so we have a weaker solution. Internet service providers can get a little bit more shirty with customer warning letters and use technical measures to dial down use of bandwidth if they are up to no good over it. On this one, sadly, the digital horse does seem to have bolted.

There are many other areas of the Digital Britain report, such as killing FM radio, opening up spectrum and ‘top ­slicing’ the BBC licence fee. These are niche items and are unlikely to have an impact on day-to-day life of Joe Public.

We are right to be engaged and excited about our future as a digital economy. However, which bits of Digital Britain succeed will depend on two things: the Government putting its money where its mouth is and which sectors of our digital economy have the strongest lobbyists.