Many thanks once again to Aren Grimshaw and Laura McKay for organising an excellent event, to Jay Cochran for sourcing an excellent venue (Vertigo bar) and to Toby Parkins and UKNetWeb for paying for the food.
As promised, I wrote up the report from the event this morning and submitted it to Kathryn Corrick, the instigator and co-ordinator of the Digital Britain Unconference series that has been taking place across the country over the past couple of weeks. Kathryn will collate it with the reports from the other events and submit them all to the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR).
The full text of the report I submitted is below. As time was very tight (event finished at 9.15pm last night, and deadline for submission was midday today!) and as the report had to be two sides of A4 max, plus there was some mild dispute as to the actual nature and extent of the broadband infrastructure currently available to Cornwall, plus my knowledge of networking technologies is sadly not that profound, there may be some things from last night that I have missed or slightly misinterpreted.
But I believe it accurately encapsulates the overall direction and spirit of our collective response to the Government's proposals. Please feel free to correct anything that seems to be wrong, or to add any comments. And finally, many thanks to all who participated in what was a very interesting and lively debate.
Digital Britain Unconference Truro
Report Submitted by Fiona Campbell-Howes, Radix Communications Ltd, Penryn, Cornwall
The Truro Digital Britain Unconference took place on Tuesday 12th May 2009 within the second monthly meeting of the Cornwall Social Media Café (CSMC), a group of people from Cornwall’s business, local government, not-for-profit and academic communities who have an interest in using social media to network, form interest groups, conduct business, and share ideas, expertise and information.
Fifteen people attended the meeting, including representatives from Cornwall Council, Cornwall Development Company and Cornwall’s digital industry. It consisted of a brief introduction to the report delivered by Fiona Campbell-Howes, followed by an hour-long discussion of the main points affecting Cornwall and the country as a whole.
As time was tight, the group chose to focus on the most pressing aspect of the report, which is the enormous discrepancy between the first of Digital Britain’s five objectives:
"Upgrading and modernising our digital networks – wired, wireless and broadcast – so that Britain has an infrastructure that enables it to remain globally competitive in the digital world."
and its statement of action no. 17:
"We will develop plans for a Universal Service Commitment to be effective by 2012, delivered by a mixture of fixed, mobile 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 2Mb/s."
The group welcomes the Government's recognition that next-generation access (NGA) broadband will be essential to maintaining the country’s competitive position in a global digital economy.
However, the group is deeply concerned at the Government's intention to leave the rollout of NGA up to commercial providers such as Virgin and BT. It finds the USO of 2Mb/s by 2012 deeply inadequate for those who will not have access to NGA – not to mention embarrassing for the country as a whole. With countries like Korea already investing in a 1Gb/s broadband network by 2015, failing to keep up with developments in broadband technology will be economically suicidal for Britain, which, as the report notes, has already fallen to 12th place in the European Commission’s league table of digital adoption.
Particularly worrying is the following statement on p.19 of the Interim Report:
"If these [Virgin Media’s fibre-to-the-home network and BT’s 21CN fibre network] are carried to completion, we can reasonably expect at least half of the UK population to have access to NGA services and possibly a periphery around that – perhaps as much as 60% or more."
As a county with a high proportion of businesses and individuals based in rural areas, much of Cornwall will fall into the 40% or 50% (perhaps more, if BT and Virgin’s investments are not carried to completion) of the population that lies outside of the NGA services being rolled out by Virgin and BT.
The group anticipated that the resulting 'two-speed Britain' would have a detrimental effect on rural businesses not just in Cornwall but also across the country, as next-generation broadband fast becomes a prerequisite for conducting business and participating in 21st-century society.
In particular, the following points were raised:
Cornwall has been immensely fortunate to benefit from EU convergence funds for the county-wide rollout of first-generation broadband. The ActNow project has ensured that 10,000 businesses and 99% of people in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly now enjoy broadband download speeds of up to 8Mb/s (although actual speeds vary depending on distance from the nearest exchange, plus upload speeds are a fraction of download and are already not sufficient for some more rurally-based businesses who rely on transfer of large files, video streaming etc. – a warning of things to come).
This has allowed innovative businesses to be set up all over the county, giving a much-needed boost to the rural economy, reducing carbon footprint, employing people locally and enabling traditional and new industries alike to find customers across the country and across the world via the internet. ActNow says that "over 80% of businesses in Cornwall say that the Internet is now critical to their business."
Cornwall is therefore an excellent case study in how near-universal access to the latest broadband technology can regenerate and revitalise not just urban areas but an entire county. From farmers to web designers, florists to PR agencies, Cornish businesses have been transformed by universal broadband access, and the county as a whole has benefited.
Far from being the brave step into the future envisaged by the Government, the 'vision' outlined in the Digital Britain Interim Report will actually set Cornwall *back* to where it was in 2002. Businesses currently based in rural areas would be forced to relocate to urban areas served by NGA networks. This would put pressure on roads and transport networks, cause currently-vibrant small towns and villages to stagnate, and have a detrimental impact on the environment by increasing commuting.
In Cornwall, NGA is currently envisaged for just Truro and Falmouth – and that will be thanks to EU convergence funds, not commercial market drivers. (NB Virgin Media is not present in Cornwall at all.) The group felt that Cornwall was fortunate compared with counties that do not benefit from EU funding, and that the myopic ‘vision’ of a 2Mb/s ‘Digital Britain’ could set their economies back even more.
Members of the Cornwall Social Media Café believe that a USO of 2Mb/s (especially where upload speeds will be a fraction of that) is insufficient for Britain’s economy today, let alone in 2012. Handing over the rollout of NGA entirely to the market means that half the country will soon find itself unable to compete effectively in the national/global economy, losing out to urban areas and other countries that enjoy next-generation broadband access. Thousands of businesses will find themselves set back years.
In conclusion, the rollout of NGA cannot be left up to the market. CSMC urges the Government to reconsider this decision and to actively explore ways to invest now in an NGA infrastructure on which the prosperity and economic future of the whole country – not just its towns and cities – can be built.