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A kind of vision for Digital Britain

But there's no understanding of the needs of the new world of work


At the end of last month, the UK government published it's report on the future of digital communications in Britain.  It proposes an approach to developing the UK's fixed and mobile communications networks work and claims to have "at its core an ambition to accelerate the rate of growth, and cement the UK’s position as a world leader in the knowledge and learning economy".

The report emphasises the key role that the digital networks are playing and will continue to play in future.  It anticipates that by 2012  £1 in every £5 of all new commerce in this country will be online.

There's a good summary of the recommendations on the BBC website.  Key recommendations affecting the world of flexible work are those that consider the growth of bandwidth, competition, and universal service. 

Where's the enterprise?

The report emphasises the important role of the digital economy in Britain.  But what is remarkable for a document emanating from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) is that there is not a single mention of the word 'enterprise' in the whole document.  And barely a mention of 'business', either.

Nor anything about changing working practices, and changing locations and mobility of work.

The focus is very much on big high tech industry and broadcast/content providers on the one hand, and consumers on the other.

The impacts that poor communications infrastructure have on small businesses is not considered, nor are the likely requirements of business in the future - apart from those specifically considered as part of the new media and cultural industries, and telecoms providers.

Critical to the future development of new ways of working are high bandwidth and universal access.  The report proposes:

"We will develop plans for a digital Universal Service Commitment to be effective by 2012, delivered by a mixture of fixed and mobile, wired and wireless means. Subject to further study of the costs and benefits, we will set out our plans for the level of service which we believe should be universal. We anticipate this consideration will include options up to 2Mb/s."

This is quite extraordinary, except the telecoms providers in their responses to the report line up to support this ultra-cautious approach.

The key point is that bandwidth makes a big difference to what businesses can do and accessibility makes a big difference to where they can do it.

The report has an interesting and somewhat disingenuous table of the applications that can run at different bandwidths: Internet telephony runs at 256kb; BBC iPlayer is fine at 1Mb, and good quality video-conferencing at 2MB.  Maybe 'just about' in each case, using current technologies, on a good day.

But there are three key problems to this way of looking at things:

  1. Having a 1 Mb or 2Mb service available doesn't mean that that is what you get.  Without getting too technical, there are a range of reasons why users don't get their full whack of bandwidth - such as contention, that is other people competing with you for the bandwidth, or the distance you live from the exchange
  2. Most services are 'asymmetrical' - that is you get a narrow pipe (256kb) upstream and a bigger pipe downstream.  This is based on a passive consumer model, where we're viewing and watching, rather than producing and sending or publishing.  So for the typical remote worker, videoconferencing is not an option yet, even at 2mb.  You can get ''symmetrical' service - but at a very high price.
  3. 2Mb broadband is lower than the average broadband speed for subscribers now - 3.6Mb.  And yet it is what is being considered as being the universal offering in 2012.  But of course applications and content are going to change enormously over the next 3 years.  Content will become much richer and bandwidth hungry.  People will be able to create much more complex documents and media files themselves, and will be posting them all over the place for personal and business reasons.  3D applications are with us now and will become much more common.  And there'll be a host of things we haven't even thought of.

There's nothing here to meet the current needs of mobile and remote workers, let alone future needs.

Where's the vision?

The report admits to being something of a fudge, although the authors prefer to talk about 'trade-offs' and recognising the context of developments so far.

Clearly, there are constraining factors, such as the interests of the existing players and the government's unwillingness to commit much investment.

The report claims for the UK a leading position amongst nations going digital - and in some respects that is true, in terms of technical innovation and new media content.

But for any of us who travel, this is a false image.  We just don't do infrastructure well in this country.  You can go just a few miles outside of any UK town and lose your mobile signal.  Or you may live in a village that doesn't have broadband. 

Yet in China this year, I was able to get mobile coverage in any city, in the desert, up a mountain, in the underground.  I was able to talk to a colleague who was in the middle of the South African bush. 

In Korea they are going for 100Mbs broadband universal coverage.  That's the kind of speed that people coming out of UK universities are getting accustomed to - but which they can't find anywhere outside of the universities networks.

It's fine for reports like this to 'big up' British innovation and the media industry.  But the fact is that when people go out and develop all their high-tech new knowledge-rich products, they will then have to load them on the pony and cart to take them to market.

To be fair, the authors of the report have got to grips with the realities of competition between the telecoms providers and the aspirations of bodies like the BBC that want to push content to consumers.  But as for the aspirations of the vast majority of people who want to use the networks for doing business - the inescapable conclusion is that they haven't got a clue.

February 2009
 

 

 


 

 

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