Monday, 11 May 2009

Cornwall Social Media Café: Cornwall's Digital Future

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.


Cyberdoyle said...

excellent post on your blog, you are spot on, and all other rural areas will be in the same boat, a 2 meg USO will not deliver what we need, neither for our businesses or family use. Please make a strong case and submit to the unconference site so all the reports can go to government. The ministers are taking a blinkered approach to this problem and need to open their eyes to the real world. We need fibre to every home in the land, in the same way we have copper now. BT tell govt that everyone has broadband, but in actual fact only the cities have anything like a good connection. Good luck with your meeting, keep us posted, @cyberdoyle on twitter.

Sam Deeks said...

The business I'm working with in London is doing a lot of work with BT Openreach, the company pushing forward with BT's 'Next Generation Access'.

Unfortunately, this situation isn't as simple as 'give us the fast broadband we need to compete'cry suggests.

First and foremost, BT would love to do 'fibre to the premises' but it simply can't afford to. If you stop to consider that its pension deficit is currently bigger than the entire capitalisation of the business, you'll start to see why.

That's why they're going for 'fibre-to-the-cabinet'that uses the existing universal copper provision.

Who would pay for it? Not the consumer. Virgin is struggling to sell its much-vaunted 50mbps service because of its premium £50 per month cost.

The real problem in this is that the whole broadband business is caught in a catch 22 situation and its this: until there is saleable content to deliver over ultra-fast broadband networks, there won't be consumers to er.. pay for the development of the infrastructure.

You've got to remember that the only reason many of us have broadband at all is because the government made universal copper networking a requirement of BT's terms of operation. Without that universal service obligation (i.e. if it had been left purely to market forces as this super fast broadband now is) far fewer of us would currently be getting even the puny broadband than currently do.

None of which escapes the reality that our creative industries will lose out by comparison with other nations with better fibre infrastructures. That's not in question.

What is in question is who will pay for it here?

Wo said...

I am meeting with ACTNow in the afternoon before I come to the Social Media Cafe. We will be talking about just some of those points. I would be glad to bring up your comments and see what they have to say.


Fiona Campbell-Howes said...

Hi everyone, thanks for your comments, much appreciated.

I'm very aware that running fibre to the home for everyone would be punitively expensive for a company like BT or Virgin to do: that's not in doubt.

My main point (and this is really just a starting point for discussion) is that in its Digital Britain report, the government harps on about how a high-speed broadband infrastructure is abssolutely essential to the country's economic future, but at the same time, it refuses to spend a single penny on implementing it, and instead expects BT, Virgin et al to shoulder the burden.

(Spending billions and billions maintaining the status quo in the banking industry is apparently OK, but investing in the country's future apparently not - and yes, I know it's not as simple as that, but if you're going to say a next-gen broadband infrastructure is essential to our future then surely you ought to be prepared to put *some* money behind it...)

So the issue is that once again, urban centres will benefit from the latest infrastructure, while more rural areas will be left behind...for Cornwall (and elsewhere) this will have a load of consequences, not just current businesses losing out, but also young people needing to leave the county to find decent jobs in the creative/media/tech industries, etc. We have one of the country's leading digital media faculties here at UCF, but that's of limited value if all those graduates then all disappear to London with their new-found skills.

With the right infrastructure in place there's no reason why Cornwall couldn't be a major digital indusstry hub, leading the world and employing thousands of people, instead of being a place where people go to learn digital skills but can't then practise them here.

Wo: Brilliant stuff, it'll be really interesting to hear what ActNow have to say. I'm sure there are people on the case already and I'd love to hear about any projects that are underway. I'm certainly not an expert on the situation, I've only been reading up on this since last week! Hope to learn more and get more people's thoughts tomorrow night.

John said...

Just to be slightly positive on this not so many years ago I contacted BT about broadband for my (remote) cornish home - the bste they could do at that time was ISDN, they even suggested it was unlikely that given my location that broadband would ever get to me - a few years passed and the technology caught up and we did indeed eventually get the broadband connection. I think the fibre links may seem like it'll never happen but as these things become more available and demand rises, I'd like to be hopefully that it will happen. Doesn't mean we shouldn't badger them for it sooner though.