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24 September 2014
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Ashley Highfield


Ashley Highfield

Director, New Media and Technology

Speech given to the Broadband Britain Summit in London

Thursday 28 October 2004
Printable version



10 million broadband users in September. One million up on the month. The fastest ever growth of any new technology? Quite probably.


At this rate, broadband users will overtake narrowband by Christmas. Digital Britain will be Broadband Britain: if ever there was a 'white heat of technology' product, this is it.


It is perhaps a sobering thought though that it's 41 years since Harold Wilson first talked about a new Britain forged from 'the white heat of technology', and whilst some British companies did indeed harness this heat and burned brightly and became world class, a far larger number of damp squibs never managed to turn great innovation into lasting success.


We have turned innovation into lasting success, in the realm of digital TV. The UK is the world leader in DTT penetration, and in overall digital TV take-up, and in interactive TV usage, and we have global pre-eminence in the creation, packaging, and distribution of TV programmes.


Can we move this 'linear' digital content leadership into the broadband 'on demand' world? Or will the white-heat prove to be nothing but hot air?


If the first age of the internet was about basic communication, about email, and the second, over the last four or so years, about e-commerce, then broadband heralds the third phase of the net. One where content is king.


Our research shows the consumption of content rises exponentially as our users' bandwidth increases.


So the emergence of broadband gives the UK the opportunity to transfer our global pre-eminence with video into the online space – harnessing technology to add richness and depth to the UK's internet experience, adding to its cultural value in the same way that the TV and radio has for previous generations.


If we don't take advantage of the opportunity, then the current dominance of overseas narrowband players, like MSN, Sony and AOL, will continue that dominance into the broadband world, and hence control the future of audio/video consumption, and by extension ultimately our UK media industry, our audiences, our culture, and our share of the global voice.


A fanciful threat that has already come to pass in the music industry with the rise of Napster and i-tunes, and, some might argue, in the television industry with the Sky platform.


Broadband heralds a world of video rich content where the power has shifted from the content owners to the audiences.


It creates a world where, for the first time ever, they are in control of their consumption.


In this near-future world, media sources are blurred, and audiences will be watching programmes that come from a variety of places – some from existing TV channels, some off the internet, others stored on a computer hard disk at home or swapped via email with friends.


To help deliver this on-demand vision the BBC has been working on an interactive media player, iMP, which has just undergone a technical trial.


iMP enables people to download television and radio programmes, choose to record whole series such as EastEnders, catch up on programmes they have missed and watch or listen to them on any device they want – all through peer-to-peer sharing on a broadband connection.


This is the new world of media consumption only made possible by a faster always on connection.


iMP is just one of a suite of products in development that makes up our BBC On Demand strategy, including the Creative Archive, the Radio Player, and the Broadband Console, with the express aim of finding the right content and services to put the British media industry at the forefront of this technology tidal wave and narrow the digital divide.


As I mentioned at the outset, thanks to aggressive marketing, competitive pricing and the increased availability of services almost 10 million people in the UK currently have broadband (that's 12% growth on last month) with 5.2 million connections in homes across the UK.


Over the next five years, we will see continued take up of basic digital technologies, but also the rapid growth of broadband which could, if the full potential is realised, transform the lives of everyone in the UK.


The BBC has, I believe, a critical role to play in this growing market, based on a clear vision of the kind of digital world we predict will be a reality by the end of this decade: a digitally empowered Britain in which broadband, along with free digital TV and digital home storage, play a vital role.

Broadband Content Drivers


But what really are the benefits of 100% broadband Britain?


Perhaps we can best see this in practice by looking at Korea, where 75% of homes have broadband – the highest per capita penetration anywhere in the world.


The government there expects broadband to increase industrial efficiency, create jobs and e-businesses, and improve the country's global competitiveness as well as per capita GDP.


For the man on the street increased broadband penetration has meant continuous access to instant unlimited TV, music and emails anytime anywhere – via broadband enabled mobile phones.


It has meant that 'smart homes' are now a reality (the Korean government expects to have 10 million by 2007) so you can in theory programme your central heating from work or start the dinner cooking on your drive home.


For businesses, it has meant that 20% of retail transactions are now done solely online and that shops and restaurants have new ways of promoting their services by, for example, sending texts and videos of their products and menus to potential customers in the area.


Here in the UK, the BBC sees broadband as a means of enabling us to place greater emphasis on community and individuals' contribution.


It will open up new ways to involve people in civic processes and institutions, let us create personalised learning tools and tailored services for minority groups, as well as enabling more convenient ways to watch and listen to our programmes and services.


But today I want to highlight the benefits that broadband could bring to one specific part of our audience – children.


Sixty per cent of schools are currently connected to broadband and 27% of parents with a child under the age of 15 have a broadband internet connection at home.


What would be the benefit to society of getting this figure closer to the 100% mark where every child would have access to broadband at school and at home?

Firstly, increased broadband access would create a new generation of digitally-savvy consumers who instinctively understand how multimedia works, putting the UK in a strong position to lead in the new digital economy.

Secondly, it would increase access to skills, training and learning which, as research from the DFES shows, leads to better prospects and higher earnings for individuals.


According to the Government's Education & Skills paper in 2003, this also has wider benefits for society - enhancing worker productivity and helping the economy remain internationally competitive.


Education and skills learning are also associated with better health (lowering the chances of depression, obesity and respiratory problems) and also a reduced crime rate (with a strong proven relationship between lack of qualifications and offending rates).

These alone are strong economic and social arguments for increasing broadband access but what does this mean in terms of the BBC services?


Broadband will make the BBC's rich children's content into a truly public resource allowing greater creative dialogue and more personalised learning journeys.


For example, while we will make sure that 70% of the Digital Curriculum will still be available to those with narrowband connections, some aspects of the service will only be realised through broadband.


This inevitably means that some people won't be able to take full advantage of the Digital Curriculum – a service which will enable students to discover and explore using video, flash animations, interactive games and printable worksheets.

Similarly, the BBC's planned scheme Music for All will be firmly rooted in broadband.


It will aim to transform music education giving children the opportunity to hear live performances, experience master classes in all music genres, create and perform their own pieces and work alongside leading musicians who can help them to develop their musical passions.

By developing such services as these, new content designed specifically for broadband, the BBC has a role to play in helping explore the full potential of this new medium.

Barriers to Adoption

But as these examples also show, those people without a broadband connection will increasingly lack access to vital public services, important skills and potentially life changing experiences and risk being left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

We recognise that we must achieve universality for our services, but, this is a fine balance.


We must not invest a disproportionate amount of the licence fee in services that cannot currently be accessed by a sizeable minority of the audience in the pursuit of driving take-up.


This sizeable minority still experience significant barriers to getting online and/or adopting broadband.

These barriers start with lack of access, then lack of awareness, and then affordability.


Solving those leaves us with many consumers still having a poor understanding of the benefits made available to them through online and many more lack the necessary e-literacy skills to take advantage of them.


And once we've got passed those hurdles we need the compelling content and services to be up and running, easily findable and navigable. Easy!

The Prime Minister, at the recent party conferences, rightly focussed on the first of these barriers, access, and the industry largely agrees that his stated aims could be met by 2008.

Next, awareness: In my eyes, awareness does not appear to be a barrier to adoption.


Last month, 71% of people (GB aged 15+) were aware of That's more than the number of people who have ever tried the internet in GB (61%) and over double the number of people who have ever used (34%).



But affordability remains a stumbling block. Home computers are no longer so costly that they are out of reach for the majority, but recent research from BMRB suggests that broadband adoption has only now resurged as a result of price reductions from broadband service providers (BSPs) like Tiscali, BT, Telewest and Wannado.


Between August and September of this year the reduction in their tariffs resulted in one million new people upgrading to a high-speed connection.

Perhaps the UK could accelerate this take up even further if hardware manufactures, BSPs and the BBC were to join forces – with compelling free-to-broadband content and access package - a non-subscription broadband entry package that could come free with a customer's cable or phone line: a kind of Freeview or Freesat model (we could call it Freeband) but for the internet.


The BBC would, for its part, make a major contribution to providing compelling content for such an initiative.


While this would go some way in tackling the affordability barrier, it does not tackle the issue of selling the benefits of the internet and the poor e-literacy skills that ensue from this.

'Get Britain Connected' Week


What I'd like to propose is a 'Get Britain Connected' week, later next year: 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.


If the cost of broadband falls enough then broadband service providers are increasingly going to have to create greater sales – and therefore more users – in order to generate the profits that the high prices had delivered in the past.


That means driving awareness through more marketing.

It is at this point that the BBC's main strengths: its talent, its brands and its content, come to the fore.


With a wealth of quality original content and innovation at its disposal, as well as arguably the richest archive in the world, the BBC can provide a compelling reason to get a high-speed connection.

We are putting a huge effort into producing distinctive video rich content for the web, partly to put increasingly clear blue water between us and our print newspaper colleagues, but also to create the must-have compelling content to drive usage and get broadband woven into the fabric of everyday life.


Take for example our recent coverage of the Olympics.


The peak audience on TV was 12.5 million with over 10 million pressing the red button across all platforms to view our interactive content.


Online, 5.5 million people in the UK used the BBC web service with nearly two million requests to view Olympic broadband streams, and, of course, only a fifth of those with telly have broadband. The demand is clearly there.

Similarly, you may remember the recent story of Red – the dog in Battersea who opened his own cage every night and freed his canine friends.


Immediately after the clip was featured on BBC ONE, thousands of people returned to to see the footage again, and forward it to friends.


It might not be high-brow but it's the kind of popular on-demand media that opens the service up to new users and gets them coming back for more.



Broadband potentially means a great future for the UK, but also runs the risk of creating a digitally deprived underclass.


The BBC, working in partnership with the industry and Government, can have a significant impact on creating 100% broadband Britain with all the tangible benefits to society that this will entail.

So, the BBC's proposed role can be summarised as firstly collaborating with any free-band or similar initiative, secondly using our airwaves to kick off a major digital media literacy campaign next year, and thirdly providing a rich mix of new content and existing television and radio programmes, on-demand, to drive demand.

We'd welcome your thoughts. Thank you.



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