Digital Britain vision lacks political roadmap

June 15, 2009

The UK government’s grand reworking of digital policy, due out Tuesday, has something for every one to chatter about — from funding for a further broadband buildout to reworking television licensing fees to how the country faces up to the issue of media piracy.

But final publication of the Digital Britain report on Tuesday follows the marked deterioration of the economic environment as well as the collapse of the political muscle needed to marshall the report’ more ambitious changes through Parliament.

Stephen Carter, the former U.K. cable executive, named as U.K.’s Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting only nine months ago, plans to leave the government soon after releasing the report.

The current political crisis has Gordon Brown’s government running scared even from the restructuring of the post office. It’s hard to see the Prime Minister creating a major digital legacy for his administration starting from here.

Sanford C. Bernstein has repeatedly argued that British policy is “inching toward a managed economy” in communications. The investment firm makes a rather extreme case that the hobbled fixed-line operator BT Group could win at the expense of successful satellite TV provider BSkyB. It’s hard to see how.

The hefty interim report (click here for 86-page PDF file) calls for, among its 22 action points, a universal service commitment to broadband. But no analyst who closely follows the subject is prepared to make a commercial case for broadband buildout to underserved areas. The closest thing to business case is for high-definition video delivered over landlines. But less costly alternatives exist in most populated parts of Britain, either from satellite or terrestrial providers.

That’s why the government is involved in the first place. While cheap, plentiful broadband may sound like a great vote-getter heading into the next election, the issue is just as likely to produce a backlash when voters tally up the potential costs. At 2-megabits per second, January’s interim Digital Britain report did little to answer the broadband industry’s complaints that Britain has fallen behind in terms of the competitiveness of Internet speeds.

Digital technology policy is a dead sexy matter for politicians of all stripes to opine about. But driving through actual policies changes that would dramatically expand support for digital technology always founders when it comes time to hard budgetary decisions, vote-counting and execution.

Rather than representing a sea change in UK policy thinking about technology, perhaps the most important outcome of the digital strategy revamp will be as a marker in Britain’s slow move away from hands-off communications policies toward continental-style government regulation.

 
Image Credits: UK Dept for Culture Media and Sport and Broadband NotSpot (http://www.broadband-notspot.org.uk/about.html)

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