The Digital Divide
The digital divide is the increasingly gaping void between those who are "connected", with two-way, video-rich, on-demand media being pumped into their home (or mobile device) over IP ("Internet Protocol"), and those who aren't: of the 40% of adults in the UK who don't have internet access, we reckon half of them have very negative attitudes to new media and don't see the benefit of the internet, the red button and - to a certain extent - mobile phones.
A two-tier nation. Every bit as stark a divide as would be access to free health care for some and not others.
I believe this is what the BBC, the broadband and media industry, government and Ofcom could, and should, collectively begin to focus much more time and energy on. With that in mind, I thought much of the debate at the recent Oxford Media Convention was perhaps pointed in the wrong direction.
James Purnell at the OMC. Image by Bill Thompson.
Lets start with Ofcom's idea of a new Public Service Publisher - "PSP".
The conference apparently rang out the "death knell" [see paragraph ten of the article linked to] for the idea of this new body (aka "Arts Council of the Air"), possibly funded from top-slicing the the Beeb's licence fee and creating a new alternative public service new media function.
I was on a lively panel at the conference with two of its strongest advocates, Tom Loosemore (previously of this parish), and Anthony Lilley (CEO Magic Lantern) - both working in some capacity at Ofcom.
I apparently upset Anthony, pointing out how his line had changed in a year, from "there could well be a central PSP service and site - in order to showcase projects for instance - [but] it is not envisaged that the PSP should be set up as a distribution platform in its own right" (quoted in full this time!) to a new softer line where he and Tom talked about merely "dropping stones in the water to cause ripples in government".
If I made a cheap shot, then I apologise. But the PSP was already holed below the water-line before my supposed broadside, when, at the RTS Cambridge Media Conference last year, those most likely to be in favour (Independent producers) called the idea of a new internet alternative to the BBC and Channel 4's offering a "balkanisation of commissioning". MPs later gave it a grilling, too.
So let's move on.
The PSP was a solution searching for a problem. Perhaps too voguishly looking at a supposed market failure in the production of social media, gaming, and open rights mashable content. There may be gaps in what the BBC does here, and we may be accused of being "constitutionally incapable" of understanding this brave new 2.0 world, but I don't see any market failure in this area: there is a wealth of social, all rights free, professionally published and user-generated content offering public value available: from both commercial players, and from the likes of Wikipedia. I don't see what gap in the UK's media ecology the PSP was trying to plug.
The gap that is there is the digital divide, and recent research indicates that while the percentage of people on the wrong side of the divide may be gradually falling, the remaining rump are hardening in their resistance to digital technologies. I have long been an advocate of not just the BBC's but all players role in helping to bring about " Connected Britain plc", for the benefit of the individual as well as of society.
In a speech I made back in 2004, I called for
a joint initiative with Government, players in the broadband supply chain (both commercial and public sector) and the BBC with its airwaves and cross-promotional opportunities to target those members of society who might find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Well, I and others failed to get such an initiative off the ground. The resurgence in the dot.com market during 2005 led many (not least the previous BBC Chairman Michael Grade) to believe that getting to 100% broadband penetration (availability and take-up and regular usage) would be "axiomatic". Rather like television and radio, everyone would eventually get connected. Without intervention, I do not believe that to be so. For a start, building out the necessary network so that everyone in the country can have truly high-speed broadband will be expensive, and may require the same push from the government as did local loop unbundling.
Bill Thompson (as reported at the Convention - sixteenth paragraph in) has been thinking along similar lines, advocating "a public sector internet".
So how do we get to a more connected Britain?
Broadband roll-out and take up suggests we'll get to about 70-80% by 2012. High speed internet mobile devices with large screens will add another 10% unique reach, meaning we'll have around 2.5-5m homes in the UK outside, looking in, at the time that the world's attention turns on us for the London Olympics.
What may be required is a two-phase approach. The first phase from now to 2012 is to work with Government, Ofcom (and this is where PSP thinking could now focus), the internet service providers, and the wider new media industry, to come up with a South Korean style blue-print. A clear vision and action plan for a digitally enabled society. A newly empowered Broadband Stakeholders Group (under Kip Meek, ex Ofcom, now at Ingenious) might do it. It would include a range of initiatives to provide access, and encourage demand, and enable take-up to the last 20%.
We would like to work with rest of the industry to develop a set of open standards for IP devices into the home. These open-standards devices would connect to both TV (over DTT or DSAT) and the Internet. This should enable any organisation to publish their content and applications to it (like Facebook) to a common look and feel. I'm thinking of services ranging from BBC iPlayer to NHS Direct, from Facebook to booking a driving test. You'd still need a broadband subscription, which might still be out of the reach of many, which leads me to phase 2.
With almost 100% availability of high speed internet by then, whether by fixed-line IP to the PC, IP-connected TVs, wi-max, or mobile devices, the focus will be on helping as many as possible of the last cohorts on board. How?
Well, a similar framework and set of principles have already been created with the BBC-managed Targeted Help Scheme for the switchover from analogue TV to digital. £600m of the BBC licence fee up to 2012 has been allocated to offer targetted support to help the elderly and disabled make the switch.
Could a similar scheme be introduced post 2012 (perhaps even rolling over any underspend on the first digital TV targetted help scheme), which might include not just a box subsidy but also a subsidised broadband connection for those unable to pay?
The Guardian's Owen Gibson says [paragraph 28]:
[broadband Britain] could yet proved an opportunity for the BBC and is in line with its mission.
But should or shouldn't the BBC get involved in the ideas I've outlined? I'd welcome your thoughts.
Ashley Highfield is Divisional Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.