Could Britain Lead The Digital Revolution?

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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

However, several industry members and commentators have suggested that the government’s proposed 50p-per-month broadband levy will fall a long way short of the amount needed to provide super-fast fibre services to every UK home. The broadband tax is expected to raise around £175 million a year, but BT estimates that the total cost of the roll-out will be closer to £5 billion, and TalkTalk claims the tax will hit the poorest people hardest.

MPs from all political parties have also slated the tax as “unfair”, saying that most of the people who would pay the tax would not benefit from it. The Conservative Party has already said that it would scrap the scheme if it won power at the next election, warning that “heavy-handed state intervention” will deter private companies from investing money to upgrade the country’s Internet infrastructure.

Rural broadband is still a problem

So is Gordon Brown’s proposal for universal superfast broadband viable? In February BT announced that it would open up its network of ducts and poles to competitors, so that rival ISPs could lay their own fibre under the street or along telegraph poles to millions of homes in the United Kingdom.

“Although it’s unlikely to be the silver bullet to get fibre to every home, open access to all ducts, not just ours, might help BT and others extend coverage,” said BT’s CEO, Ian Livingston. “BT is taking a considerable degree of commercial risk by rolling out fibre and it will be interesting to see if others are willing to join us.”

However, one of the main sticking points is the issue of rural broadband, because these remote parts of the country are not currently lucrative enough for ISPs to invest in fibre rollout. The Tories have suggested that, rather than a tax, money from private investors could provide better cabling in towns and cities, while a portion of the BBC’s licence fee would be used to pay for coverage in less lucrative rural areas.

Brown makes the point that high-speed broadband is not much use without high-quality content, which “relies on maintaining the conditions for innovation and competition online”. In his speech he pledged to support the independence of Ofcom – to ensure creativity, diversity and high standards – and to retain the BBC licence fee, so it can continue “providing world-class quality content”.

Rural broadband provision is therefore left in political limbo until after the election – along with many aspects of universal broadband provision.

Tip of the iceberg

The provision of universal superfast broadband is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Gordon Brown’s vision of Britain as the leader of the digital revolution. The Prime Minister also announced that the government would launch an online “dashboard” to manage pensions and benefits, pay council tax, apply for school places and jobs, and book doctor’s appointments. “Our goal is to replace this first generation of e-government with a much more interactive second generation form of digital engagement which we are calling MyGov,” he said.

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