Digital Britain: well-intended but lacking in detail

Matthew Howett/Ovum
03 Feb 2009

The UK's first communications minister, Lord Stephen Carter, last week published the much-anticipated report Digital Britain - a plan to secure Britain's place at the forefront of the global digital economy.

It portrays the sector as a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak economy and proposes 22 recommendations to make the digital network the backbone of the economy in the same way that roads and railways have been in the past.

Lord Carter rightly identifies the need for a comprehensive program for Digital Britain, although at the moment he seems unsure of how to deliver one.

On Wednesday the IMF warned that Britain is set to suffer the worst recession of any advanced nation during the current downturn. As such, any measures designed to stimulate sectors of the economy must be timely and credible. This means taking the right long-term decisions now to secure a competitive future.

The UK government now has an opportunity to move away from a reliance on the financial sector and make the broadband network the backbone of the economy in the same way that roads and railways have been in the past.

In this respect, the UK is already behind other countries in both Europe and the rest of the world. For instance, the Irish government recently launched a national broadband tender, and the Portuguese government has committed to investment in fiber rollouts.

Digital Britain (perhaps unfairly) is seen as the UK's answer to an Obama-style stimulus package. However, on seeing the interim document, the UK is at risk of substituting yet more reports for action. No fewer than eight new reports will come out of Lord Carter's initiative, with responsibility spanning across three institutions: the Department for Culture Media & Sport, the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform and Ofcom.

The government must ensure that Digital Britain doesn't become merely a series of reviews, reports and consultations, but instead is a convincing roadmap for action. The priority should be a focus on spectrum and next-generation access (NGA), after which many of Lord Carter's other objectives become easier to achieve.

Spectrum reform

While the report is characterized by the things it doesn't say, many important roadblocks have at least been acknowledged - in particular the delay to spectrum re-farming and allocation of the digital dividend.

A new Wireless Spectrum Modernization Program will seek to resolve the re-farming dispute, and if a voluntary solution among operators does not emerge then a government-imposed resolution could unfold. With the digital dividend, now would have been an ideal opportunity for the UK to join those other countries that have advocated harmonizing the 790-862MHz band to be used for mobile broadband - instead this issue will join the bulging to-do list for the summer.

These unresolved issues could have far-reaching implications for the ubiquity of broadband, since it is hard to define a new universal service obligation (USO) until such spectrum issues are resolved.

Lord Carter's words on the USO perhaps highlight one of the greatest flaws in his report, and that is the lack of attention the government is paying to developments in the sector at the EU level.

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