Could Britain Lead The Digital Revolution?

Gordon Brown today laid out the government’s strategy to transform Britain into a leading digital power, but contradictory measures in the Digital Economy Bill could foil his plans

Gordon Brown has set out plans to deliver superfast broadband to every home in the UK, in a move that he claims could slash billions of pounds from public service costs and create more than a quarter of a million jobs. But could such a scheme really help to deliver Brown’s vision of Britain as “the leading superfast broadband digital power”?

Late last year, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the UK was distinctly average when it came to broadband penetration. Out of the 30 OECD members, Britain was placed 13th, with 28.9 broadband subscribers per 100 population.

The study also found that while 61.5 percent of British households had access to a broadband service, the country was lagging behind other countries when it came to download speeds. The UK’s average advertised download speed is 10.7 Mbps, compared to average speeds of 51 Mbps in France, 80.8 Mbps in South Korea and 92.8 Mbps in Japan.

Electricity of the digital age

In his speech today, the Prime Minister described superfast broadband as “the electricity of the digital age,” suggesting that those who have never accessed the Internet are “trapped in a second tier of citizenship”, denied access to “a fundamental freedom in the modern world”. Indeed, a recent poll conducted by GlobeScan on behalf of the BBC World Service found that nearly 80 percent of people worldwide consider access to the Internet to be a fundamental right, rather than a privilege.

“The Internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created,” Dr Hamadoun Toure, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), told BBC News. He said that governments must regard the Internet as basic infrastructure – just like roads, waste and water. “We have entered the knowledge society and everyone must have access to participate,” he said. Internet access is already a legal right in Finland and Spain.

In many ways Gordon Brown’s digital strategy responds to this sentiment. In his speech he expressed the view that “the world available to those with superfast broadband will be unimaginably richer than to those without,” claiming that it will “enrich our democracy by giving people new ways of communicating, complaining and challenging vested interests.”

Broadband tax will fall short

However, his reasons for implementing such a strategy are more than simply humanitarian. In the Pre-Budget Report, the government resolved to find £11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency. PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that the government can save £900 million a year just by bringing those who don’t have access to the Internet online – so that they can carry out transactions with public services more quickly and efficiently – and then switching off analogue government services.

Moreover, the government is committed to achieving £4 billion of savings from back office functions by 2012-13. This will largely be achieved by implementing modern digital platforms wherever possible and establishing shared services.

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