Digital dreams

Sub-zero temperatures, travel chaos, factory closures, industrial action…all we need now to complete our return to the 1970s is a couple of racist sit-coms, a few power cuts and the resurrection of Bagpuss.

Given the scale and the historic resonance of the current economic crisis, the UK government’s pledge to make sure we have all got broadband access by 2012 may therefore seem flippant to some. But the Digital Britain report from Lord Carter, UK communications minister, which calls for a minimum 2Mbps broadband connection to be available to every UK home by 2012, is, we would argue, an important step in the right direction.

Indeed, considering the ability of any government announcement to polarise opinion, it is a measure of how our technological landscape has shifted that, barring a few tabloid rants about the unemployed sitting around watching YouTube all day, Carter’s report has, in fact, been widely commended.

In recent weeks we have repeatedly discussed in this column the need to reinvigorate the economy with something more tangible than loans for failing banks, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is right to talk up the components of a digital infrastructure as the ‘roads and bridges’ of a 21st century ‘New Deal’.

Not only will investment and development of this infrastructure generate new jobs, but there is a proven demand for an expansion of our current capabilities. BBC’s iPlayer has already collapsed under the strain a number of times and networks will only become more stretched as new services and technologies – from virtual conferencing to high-definition TV and telemedicine – compete for bandwidth. It’s not putting it too strongly to assert that ubiquitous broadband is an essential platform for the growth of many of the industries that will help us emerge from the current downturn.

If we have any misgiving over the report, it would be that it’s not ambitious enough. According to a report published last month by Ofcom, 60 per cent of British homes currently have broadband and these users enjoy an average of 3.6Mbps, which is more than Lord Carter’s 2Mbps. To put this in a global perspective, France recently decided that everyone will get 50Mbps while Japan and South Korea have a 100Mbps service. To be fair to Lord Carter, he has indicated that 2Mbps is a bare-minimum requirement. But the worry is that government targets have a nasty habit of slipping. If you set the bar low to start with, it doesn’t exactly smack of unbridled ambition.

Whatever improvements we make to our digital infrastructure, they need to happen quickly. As we wrote in this column last week, Ed Miliband’s announcement that he will be waiting until next year before announcing a shortlist of energy projects is exactly what we don’t want. And in the world of digital communications speed is even more important. Let’s just hope that the expansion of our digital infrastructure doesn’t languish on the to-do list as long as the Severn Barrage.

Jon Excell

Deputy Editor