- 23 Jan 09, 17:52 GMT
Should a broadband connection be compulsory for every UK resident ? Well of course not, but if you haven't got one yet, prepare to be battered into submission.
Digital Britain - a major report from the technology minister on our high-tech future - is due to be published next week (which is very inconsiderate of Lord Carter as I will be away on holiday). And it looks as though the report will focus on measures to close the digital divide and ensure that everyone in the UK gets access to broadband. So how are we going to get there?
Right now around 60% of households have broadband. That leaves the government with two issues to address - finding a way to connect the 1% who just cannot get it, and persuading the 39% who haven't bothered that they really, really need it.
The 1% problem may not be too tricky to solve - as long as enough money is thrown at it. Mobile and satellite solutions should patch the holes in the fixed-line network.
But what is going to make over a third of all households decide that finally it's time to get connected? Someone in the broadband industry admitted to me that ISPs haven't really worked very hard at this. "The market has never been very good at this - it just doesn't understand this type of consumer. They'd rather concentrate on competing for the two-thirds who've got it and upgrading them, rather than going for the one-third which they don't understand and don't know how to get to."
So what do we know about these people? There is evidence that, with take-up of broadband slowing, there is now quite a substantial slice of the population which is in no hurry to join the revolution. An Ofcom report last year looked at reasons for people not having broadband - which it describes as "voluntary or involuntary non-ownership".
"Voluntary" non-ownership means people who just don't want it - that accounted for 16% of the population in Ofcom's survey and most of them said they just did not need it. "Involuntary" is that group which would like broadband, but finds it too costly or too difficult to use.
So this latter group may have to be wooed with cheaper and more user-friendly services. The problem here is finding ways of subsidising the minority, without distorting a market that works pretty well for the majority right now. So if you're paying £15 a month for your broadband, how will you feel about your neighbour getting "broadbandforall" at just £5?
Getting everyone online will be hard. After all, nearly 30% of households don't even have a computer at home. The answer here, according to someone I chatted with at a big ISP, is television.
Just about everyone has one of these, so they may have to be the route to the fast internet for many - though linking the TV screen to a broadband line won't necessarily deliver the educational benefits the government is seeking. Do we really want children who don't have a computer at home to do their homework on the telly?
One measure that would drive take-up amongs the "voluntary" non-users is making more government services available exclusively online. But just how popular a measure would it be to tell the elderly, for instance, that they could collect their pensions online but not at the post office?
So I will be interested to hear what ideas Lord Carter has to make the internet as common a utility in British homes as running water. But maybe compulsory broadband isn't the answer.
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