Tomorrow night (Tuesday 12th May) will see the second meeting of the Cornwall Social Media Café (CSMC), organised by Aren Grimshaw from UKnetweb and Laura McKay from Deborah Clark Associates. It'll be held at the Vertigo Bar in Truro from 7pm.
A couple of weeks ago Aren was looking for ideas about possible formats for these events: should they just be informal drinks sessions, or should there be a guest speaker and discussion topic each time?
At the same time as Aren sent out his request, I was seeing a lot of chat on Twitter about the Digital Britain Interim Report, which sets out the government's vision for the UK's digital economy over the next four or five years.
It's still in draft at the moment, but when the final report is published next month, it will form the basis of future legislation, policymaking and public spending in the areas of broadband, mobile, TV and radio infrastructure, digital content and services, e-inclusion and digital skills.
A lot of the people I follow on Twitter weren't impressed with the unambitiousness of the report, or that the government seemed only to be seeking input on it from big media and telecoms companies.
Kathryn Corrick suggested that there should be a series of informal 'unconferences' across the country, at which anyone who has an interest in Britain’s digital future could get together to discuss what the government is proposing, and submit any feedback and suggestions for possible inclusion in the final report.
The deadline for feedback is mid-May, which means there's just time for CSMC members to comment. I suggested having an informal discussion about it at Tuesday's CSMC meetup, and Aren and Laura liked the idea – as long as I was happy to write up and submit any thoughts we might come up with, which I am.
The main aspect of the report that we could discuss and feed back on – especially in terms of how it affects Cornwall and the Cornish economy – is the part relating to broadband. Basically it makes two main points:
1. Next-Generation Broadband is essential: The government would like to see a nationwide next-generation (fibre-optic) broadband network infrastructure with download speeds of at least 20Mbps by 2015. The future success of our economy depends on it, and if we don't have it, Britain will lose out to other more advanced countries. (South Korea, for example, is aiming for a 1 gigabit broadband network by 2015.)
However, the government does not propose to invest any public money in this next-generation broadband network. Instead, it wants to rely on commercial enterprises like BT and Virgin rolling out 50Mbps fibre networks across the country.
What does this mean for Cornwall? Virgin and BT are unlikely to dig fibre-optic cables up to every village and farmhouse; it's not profitable, especially not in a recession. We'll be back to a two-speed economy: urban areas are already benefiting from next-generation broadband, but rural communities will have to stick with first-generation speeds of 1-2 Mbps. Cornwall's rural businesses, which rely increasingly on the internet for sales, marketing, research, etc., will be at a disadvantage, and the county's economy will very likely suffer.
2. Every home and office must have 2Mbps broadband access by 2012: The government wants to impose an obligation on BT and other providers to make sure every home in the country benefits from broadband access and download speeds of 2Mbps by 2012.
What does this mean for Cornwall? Without access to fibre-optic broadband networks, rural homes and businesses in Cornwall will be stuck with this 'low-speed' broadband option. 2Mbps is already not sufficient for some new internet services (e.g. reliable video streaming), and by 2012 it will seem as slow as dial-up does to us now. It's well known that actual download speeds vary significantly from the promised 'top speed' – and upload speeds are usually only a fraction of the download speed.
The ActNow project used EU development funds to make sure that (just about) everyone in Cornwall got access to first generation broadband. But there are no funds at present to help Cornwall move to next-generation fibre broadband. (Cornwall Council is actively looking for a private investor to fund it, but this will be difficult in a recession).
Hopefully this will give us a starting point for discussion tomorrow night!
For those interested in this and other aspects of the Digital Britain report, I recommend the following resources:
Digital Britain Interim Report (PDF) – the 86-page report itself
Digital Britain At A Glance – the BBC’s overview of the main points of the report
Charles Leadbeater’s response to Digital Britain (PDF) – excellent deconstruction of what’s wrong with the report.
Digital Britain Unconference blog – with details of all the other Digital Britain unconferences.