At the end of last month, the UK government
published it's report on the future of digital
communications in Britain. It proposes an
approach to developing the UK's fixed and mobile
communications networks work and claims to have "at
its core an ambition to accelerate the rate of
growth, and cement the UK’s position as a world
leader in the knowledge and learning economy".
report emphasises the key role that the digital
networks are playing and will continue to play in
future. It anticipates that by 2012 £1
in every £5 of all new commerce in this country will
There's a good summary of the
the BBC website. Key recommendations
affecting the world of flexible work are those that
consider the growth of bandwidth, competition, and
Where's the enterprise?
The report emphasises the important role of the
digital economy in Britain. But what is
remarkable for a document emanating from the
Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory
Reform (BERR) is that there is not a single mention
of the word 'enterprise' in the whole document.
And barely a mention of 'business', either.
anything about changing working practices, and
changing locations and mobility of work.
is very much on big high tech industry and
broadcast/content providers on the one hand, and
consumers on the other.
The impacts that poor
communications infrastructure have on small
businesses is not considered, nor are the likely
requirements of business in the future - apart from
those specifically considered as part of the new
media and cultural industries, and telecoms
Critical to the future development of
new ways of working are high bandwidth and universal
access. The report proposes:
"We will develop plans for a digital
Universal Service Commitment to be effective by
2012, delivered by a mixture of fixed and
mobile, wired and wireless means. Subject to
further study of the costs and benefits, we will
set out our plans for the level of service which
we believe should be universal. We anticipate
this consideration will include options up to
This is quite extraordinary, except the telecoms
providers in their responses to the report line up
to support this ultra-cautious approach.
point is that bandwidth makes a big difference to
what businesses can do and accessibility makes a big
difference to where they can do it.
The report has
an interesting and somewhat disingenuous table of
the applications that can run at different
bandwidths: Internet telephony runs at 256kb; BBC
iPlayer is fine at 1Mb, and good quality
video-conferencing at 2MB. Maybe 'just about'
in each case, using current technologies, on a good
But there are three key problems to this way
of looking at things:
- Having a 1 Mb or 2Mb service available
doesn't mean that that is what you get.
Without getting too technical, there are a range
of reasons why users don't get their full whack
of bandwidth - such as contention, that is other
people competing with you for the bandwidth, or
the distance you live from the exchange
- Most services are 'asymmetrical' - that is
you get a narrow pipe (256kb) upstream and a
bigger pipe downstream. This is based on a
passive consumer model, where we're viewing and
watching, rather than producing and sending or
publishing. So for the typical remote
worker, videoconferencing is not an option yet,
even at 2mb. You can get ''symmetrical'
service - but at a very high price.
- 2Mb broadband is lower than the average
broadband speed for subscribers now - 3.6Mb.
And yet it is what is being considered as being
the universal offering in 2012. But of
course applications and content are going to
change enormously over the next 3 years.
Content will become much richer and bandwidth
hungry. People will be able to create much
more complex documents and media files
themselves, and will be posting them all over
the place for personal and business reasons.
3D applications are with us now and will become
much more common. And there'll be a host
of things we haven't even thought of.
There's nothing here to meet the current
needs of mobile and remote workers, let alone
Where's the vision?
The report admits to being something of a
fudge, although the authors prefer to talk about
'trade-offs' and recognising the context of
developments so far.
Clearly, there are
constraining factors, such as the interests of
the existing players and the government's
unwillingness to commit much investment.
report claims for the UK a leading position
amongst nations going digital - and in some
respects that is true, in terms of technical
innovation and new media content.
But for any
of us who travel, this is a false image.
We just don't do infrastructure well in this
country. You can go just a few miles
outside of any UK town and lose your mobile
signal. Or you may live in a village that
doesn't have broadband.
Yet in China this year, I was able to get
mobile coverage in any city, in the desert, up a
mountain, in the underground. I was able
to talk to a colleague who was in the middle of
the South African bush.
In Korea they are going for 100Mbs broadband
universal coverage. That's the kind of
speed that people coming out of UK universities
are getting accustomed to - but which they can't
find anywhere outside of the universities
It's fine for reports like this to
'big up' British innovation and the media
industry. But the fact is that when people
go out and develop all their high-tech new
knowledge-rich products, they will then have to
load them on the pony and cart to take them to
To be fair, the authors of the report
have got to grips with the realities of
competition between the telecoms providers and
the aspirations of bodies like the BBC that want
to push content to consumers. But as for
the aspirations of the vast majority of people
who want to use the networks for doing business
- the inescapable conclusion is that they
haven't got a clue.