Lord Carter's eagerly awaited interim Digital Britain report arrived today, promising broadband to every house in the land by 2012. First impressions are that the report is more than a little vague, and although we were surprised by such a concrete commitment to universal broadband access, we're left with as many questions as answers.
Such as whether we really need broadband for all? How will it work? Is 2012 realistic? And the elephant in the room: who's going to pay for it? There is a recession on, after all.
Bear in mind this is only a precursor to a final report due in late spring. Objectives include 'upgrading and modernising our digital networks -- wired, wireless and broadcast', which is what's been grabbing the headlines. Other goals are to encourage UK investment and content, advance universal access and necessary IT skills, and push online interaction with public services and government.
But what will Carter the Unstoppable Techs Machine actually be doing? Well, we're getting a strategy group and an umbrella body -- hurrah! You can never have too many of those -- and before the final report appears, everyone involved has promised to have a jolly hard think. Mainly about how they can get someone else to pay for all this, we'd imagine.
The report includes a hint at a possible digital switchover for radio, after television moves over from analogue. And there's more on the hot-button issue of copyright, piracy and the surrounding brouhaha. A rights agency is mooted, crucially to be funded 'through a modest and proportionate contribution' by 'distributors and rights-holders'. Meanwhile, Action 13 of the report sets out the intention to legislate against copyright infringers, including a requirement for ISPs to collect data on 'serious repeat infringers', whose personal details will only be made available to rights-holders on receipt of a court order.
But it's universal broadband that has us talking, with the report anticipating a 2Mbps connection to every house by 2012. It's starting to look like 2012 will be make-or-break time for UK plc, with the country's economy, international standing and public consciousness invested so heavily in the Olympics and its associated hoopla. Who's paying for it is unclear, as is how those currently paying for broadband will react to possibly subsidising or paying more than others.
Meanwhile, some are unconvinced as to whether we really need universal broadband. As fully paid-up Net nerds, we're on board with the idea of superfast connections we can push to the limit with cloud computing, Web video, downloading and sharing content -- wherever we are, and whatever device we're using. But our dear old mums just want to check their email, and of the 17 million people who aren't online, how many simply don't want to be?
So the idea of broadband being as important as electricity, water and gas seems a stretch right now. But then people probably said that about TV and even the telephone, and the idea of providing Internet access to the less well-off or less educated is a noble one.
We're not sold on the report's argument that a universal broadband infrastructure will lift us out of recession and make us greener, but the idea of future-proofing the nation is squarely in our wheelhouse. Early adopters already get TV, music and on-demand content via the Web, as well as working, VoIPing, and interacting with companies and services. The report includes an ominous mention of public-sector 'efficiencies', which hopefully for the sake of those who aren't so online-inclined won't mean real-world public services will be efficiencied out of existence in favour of virtual versions.
We hope the idea of universal broadband is more sustainable than, say, universal healthcare. Still, as the online generation matures, we'll all grow into silver surfers, and the notion of separate TVs, phones and computers will be as quaint as black-and-white TV or gas lighting. Hopefully we'll have hoverboards by then too.