Analysis: Think tanks fill up on broadband

Lots more discussion to be had, it would seem

Lots more discussion to be had, it would seem

This year has so far seen a lot of smart people from various foundations and think tanks take an in-depth look at the state of the UK broadband market. Nico Macdonald casts an eye over what we can take away from them.

If you are a UK think tank or IT research group and haven't researched a report on broadband, what have you been up to recently? From hard-nosed free marketers at the Adam Smith Institute to the cuddlier folks at The Work Foundation's iSociety project, everyone has a view on broadband. The latest contribution, 'Always On, Changing Britain', from The European Media Forum (EMF), includes a substantial chapter by sociologist Professor Frank Furedi, more commonly found opining on risk society, therapy culture and parenting.

Most reports are focused on the consumer sphere, though the Adam Smith Institute's 'Broadband Britain - Finding A Way Forward' concerns itself more with regulation and industry structure.

What can we learn from our esteemed policy wonks? Well, the good news is there is intelligent life in the think tank world and its residents have a pretty good handle on all things Internet. That said, there are a number of areas where their vision is obscured, perhaps resulting from a lack of intimacy with the IT industry and the leading edge of research and development.

The most basic mistake made by many commentators is the assumption that broadband is about the PC and the web browser. The iSociety report, 'Fat Pipes, Connected People - Rethinking Broadband Britain' (published in partnership with the Broadband Stakeholder Group), makes this mistake, as does the PwC contribution, 'The Broadband Future: Interactive, Networked, and Personalized'. Rather, broadband is as much about enabling applications such as Apple's iTunes, which both looks up track information online and uses the MacOS X HTML engine for displaying song information pulled in from the iTunes Music Store. Writing in 'Always On, Changing Britain', journalist Simon Regan-Edwards shows he understands this from his discussion of sharing other people's iTunes music collections.

The related misconception is that broadband is all about speed and cost, rather than what you do with it and what value it delivers. Sir George Young MP observes in 'Always On, Changing Britain' that the speed aspect of broadband "has been somewhat exaggerated" and that the performance we actually experience depends on many other factors. Of course increasing broadband speed is important, and the lack of investment beyond ADSL is lamentable ("'[r]eal' broadband will I suspect need a lot more digging up roads and laying of infrastructure", Young observes) but too often the demand for more bandwidth tomorrow is used to excuse the lack of delivery of compelling products and services today. Indeed, BT CEO Ben Verwaayen was recently lambasted by silicon.com readers despite his rather thoughtful remarks on this subject.

Always-on (and low connection latency) is probably more important than bandwidth. The iSociety report is most considered on this subject (as was its earlier report, 'RealityIT - Technology and Everyday Life') and talks about 'broadband time' which is "'timeless time' in which users dip in and out of the internet", (a view endorsed by Furedi) adding that "realising the benefits of speed suggests that getting tasks done more quickly is an objective of the user". 'Fat Pipes' also notes how the dial-up model "divides information and communication into two separate areas".

Wide-eyed BTexact evangelist Ian Pearson has his feet on the ground in his contribution to 'Always On, Changing Britain', in which he observes that "games designers have also managed to achieve good interactive game play over narrowband links". Sir George Young demonstrates a good grasp of the need for always-on connections, though he misses the point that we also need computers (and other networked appliances) to be always-on.

Although being always-on is critical, it is important to appreciate that not everything has to happen in real time. Over a long period, a low bandwidth connection can deliver large data files (for instance, a movie) and as long as they are there when the viewer wants them, it is of no moment that they didn't arrive over broadband. TiVo and other digital video recorder users get a large choice of viewing despite having a traditional low-bandwidth RF connection and their electronic programming guides are updated overnight via a humble modem.

Pearson gets this in the context of what used to be called 'near video on demand'. "With good DVRs, which the satellite distributors are now pushing, a single broadcast of a film can be used, with customers loading it off the disk at their convenience."

As my earlier comments imply, the PC is often not the right tool for delivering information and rarely appropriate for delivering services. It isn't in the right place when people need these things, and (like the Swiss Army Knife) it is rarely the best tool for the job. Broadband needs to come to us, rather than that we go to it, and it should be used to enable appropriate appliances and devices.

Some of the reports' misconceptions in this area are the result of a misinterpretation of convergence. Convergence takes place at the back-end. At the front end, real people need divergence. European Commissioner Erkki Liikanen makes this clear in his contribution to 'Always On, Changing Britain' where he comments that "PCs are not the only tool able to access the internet".

The Adam Smith Institute report is also on the money when it discusses "consumers who will access… content from a multitude of networked devices in a variety of individual and social settings". The PwC report acknowledges the importance of context of use and Regan-Edwards recognises that the PC is not ideal for TV viewing and that broadband can deliver data to other devices.

The concept of network-enabled devices, many of which we may have very little interaction with, brings up many infrastructural issues, which only 'Always On, Changing Britain' addresses in Furedi's consideration of possible government intervention with respect to building regulations.

How will adoption in the home take place? None of the reports endorse the common broadband marketing mantra of fast email and web access. However, the PwC report considers that "the major impact of broadband over the next three years will be the addition of video to existing applications… and the development of new applications that rely on user- and community provided video content", though it fails to explain the reluctance of people to use earlier forms of video conferencing.

Part 2...

Furedi believes that "the internet itself is the 'killer application' driving residential broadband adoption". This appears to be rather tautologous. Clearly there isn't a killer app for the internet (it would have been email or the web). It is more akin to an infrastructure and one that, like electricity, will support so many activities that soon no one in the UK will be able to imagine life without it. How we bootstrap ourselves into this situation is a question none of the reports answers.

In 'Always On, Changing Britain' e-minister Stephen Timms contends that "for broadband to really take hold in our lives, and for more people to take it up, more needs to be done to stimulate compelling content". (I should note that content is now an almost content-less term, and one that is regularly abused by government ministers, including Timms' colleague, DCMS supremo Tessa Jowell.) Liikanen argues that "[a] definition of broadband should take into account… the underlying basic requirement of bi-directional bandwidth sufficient to support the combined provision of voice, data and video", which would allow for rich interaction between people.

The discussion of person-to-person communication is in vogue but is over-rated. It is a fair observation that people naturally create 'content' that it is compelling to at least a few people and that it is free. It is also fair to observe that people increasingly seek person-to-person interaction in the absence of broader social and civic engagement. But the extent to which telcos, ISPs and others promote this model reflects a lack of ambition and the absence of the belief that they can create worthwhile services and products for their customers. Person-to-person interaction may be a current driver of telephony (particularly mobile telephony) but it was not always this way. Before cordless and mobile phones, and 'It's good to talk', the phone tended to be used by business and government and by people wanting to organise services and deal with problems. And today the telephone is as much a service device as a medium for interpersonal interaction.

Businesses, broadcasters and publishers need to take a lead in creating the future forms of information, news and entertainment. The PwC report recognises this when it recommends that "[c]ontent providers now must create new applications and content types". Liikanen fails to appreciate this, arguing for pushing old media down new pipes in the form of video on demand.

Business also needs to take a lead in creating imaginative applications of broadband beyond the PC. BT is starting to understand this but has not got much further than voice over IP and video conferencing.

Most discussion of the role of government and regulation is confined to the Adam Smith Institute report. Furedi considers the policy side of government, and argues that "[p]oliticians need to avoid the temptation of hyping up computer-mediated technology as a quick fix solution to problems and instead treat it as a basic tool with which to get their job done".

Government spending on IT and networking (particularly in education and health) is clearly helping pump-prime the broadband rollout but the New Labour free market fixation limits other initiatives, such as those in South Korea where, the Adam Smith Institute notes, "deployment has been more aggressively supported and subsidised by government".

One idea not picked up on by the think tanks is lowering the bar for broadband services, Minitel-style, by subsidising development and installation of 'phone-browser-SMS device-voice service interface-ADSL boxes' in every UK home, phone box and beyond. That would create a field worth playing on.

The contribution of think tanks and IT research groups to the debate has been substantial. Insights on the character of always-on and broadband speed, the nature of online content and the social changes broadband could effect are invaluable and have already moved the debate on. Now, there is a lot more thinking to be done. And a lot of work convincing business and government of the insights gleaned.

Nico Macdonald has been advising publishers and designers about information technology since the late 1980s and writing about design and technology since the early 1990s. He is co-author of the BT Broadband booklet 'Broadband: the Ultimate Guide for Small and Medium Enterprises'. He can be contacted at nico@spy.co.uk or post a Reader Comment about this article below.