Rory Cellan-Jones

Rewriting Digital Britain

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 2 Mar 09, 16:40 GMT

The Digital Britain report - or rather Lord Carter's interim effort - came out in late January and it is fair to say that the reactions were not exactly ecstatic. Some bloggers saw the report as unambitious - setting a target of just "up to 2Mbps" for universal access broadband, and failing to promise large sums of money to build a next generation network. Others were concerned that too much had been conceded to the copyright lobby in a report which should have said more about giving consumers free access to more content - and to the governement's own data. And just about everyone thought the whole thing was both too vague and too full of dodgy jargon.

Lord CarterTo be fair to Lord Carter, he's been stressing the interim nature of his report - and making clear that the final version will have a lot more answers, as well as taking onboard suggestions from the consultation.

But two technology-minded academics may have done him a favour with a couple of ideas to make that consultation work better. First, Tony Hirst and Joss Winn created an online "commentable" version of the Digital Britain report, a place where anyone could come and give their take on every paragraph of the report. So far, the most "commented" section is the chapter on the economics of digital content. One typical contribution: "There is no justification - economic or otherwise - for the taxpayer to foot the bill for enforcement of the entertainment industry's IP rights."

But now Hirst and Winn have gone further. Having seen that there is plenty of criticism but not much coherent thinking about what a better "Digital Britain" report might look like, they have created "The Fake Digital Britain Report". This is a wiki, which can be edited by anyone, with the aim of producing something similar to Lord Carter's effort by the time the consultation period ends on March 12th.

There is a lot of work to be done - so far little of the report has been filled in, and what is there is rather predictably utopian. The section on next generation networks says:

"We propose that a huge infrastructure programme is unleashed guaranteeing ultra-high-speed access to literally every home and business in the country. So that's fibre to the home for everyone. No quibbles, no "but it's too expensive", no messing around assessing demand from end-users. Just do it."

Yes, well I'm sure ministers will read that with interest and proceed to approve a £27bn programme of investment in fibre-to-the home. Possibly.

But Tony Hirst and Joss Winn aren't putting forward any particular views of their own - just doing their best to enable everyone else to have their say on some of the most important issues for our technology future. Joss explained that it was more about showing how it was possible to use very simple web tools to draw the public in to the discussion: "We're showing the government that myself and Tony - on zero budget -can make something much more accessible than they've done themselves. The tools are entirely available to government but they're just not using them."

In fact, the government has now started its own Digital Britain forum, which is taking some of the comments from Hirst and Winn's Write To Reply site. The final report will have little chance of pleasing everyone - but it may still end up as a good example of digital democracy, thanks to the efforts of two imaginative people.


  • Comment number 1.

    The inspiration for the commentable version of WriteToReply actually came from the Power of Information Taskforce Report (Beta), which used a similar technique for soliciting comments on that report.

    The folks at DIUS and the Cabinet Office are doing some really innovative things at the moment in terms of web based engagement, which is actually putting the responsibility on US to play an active role and provide constructive feedback to them.

    If government does start to solicit feedback on our terms, we're going to look pretty foolish if no-one contributes back in a meaningful way...

  • Comment number 2.

    Agree with your message, so I just contributed to the report. Thanks

  • Comment number 3.

    £27 billion? That's less than RBS has just 'lost' and far, far less than what we're spending on propping them up. Yet long term, this country's communications infrastructure is arguably every bit as important as a secure banking sector.

    This country is one of the richest in the world - far richer than many of the countries whose average broadband speeds are already streets ahead of ours. The money is there, and it could be spent on this. It should be spent on this.

  • Comment number 4.

    At least Lord Carter acknowledges that 3G and LTE are the business drivers to providing Mobile Broadband - the BBC 'broaderband' pages (December 2007) seem to have been nobbled and only mention WiMAX.........

    He should really be talking about the real-life capabilities of 2-5Mbps HSPA and 8-20Mbps HSPA+ - and in the context of an internet connectivity debate not refer to mobile devices by the limiting term 'phones' - the ability of mobile networks to provide rural broadband should not be overlooked.

    Spectrum availability in Rural areas is not usually problem, urban areas may suffer constraints and offer a poorer experience when multiple users sign up, but the Mobile Networks could be persuaded to add carriers in suburban and rural areas, and Micros in Urban/Dense-Urban environments but they too need a return on investment.

    Why should only BT have their hands out for a sub, in return for the slack they are being cut in the consumer market, they could be providing cheap/fast fibre backhaul to government-incentivised urban in-fill sites (covering, for example, the have-nots on deprived housing estates) where the operators' Ethernet Microwave roll-out plans will be less effective in providing sufficient backhaul.

  • Comment number 5.

    If this Government took a closer look at Satellite Broadband, then 100% of the UK and much of Europe would be covered in the Satellite footprint. I wonder why they insist on Technology that means digging up 'yet again !' hundreds of miles, if not THOUSANDS, of streets and pavements to 'give' people a facility that many cannot afford, and many will not be able to tell if their download, and upload speeds have made any difference.
    Another example of this Government TELLING us what we NEED ? How about MORE POLICE on the pavements ?


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