Can the Tories deliver their promise of a British Google?

Analysis: Deep down, the party's tech manifesto is truly conservative
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

Analysis: Deep down, the party's tech manifesto is truly conservative

The newly launched Conservative Technology Manifesto sets out pledges to transform technology in the UK - heralding the advent of superfast broadband and an end to bloated government IT contracts.

It was introduced by the party last week with the aim of ensuring that the "next generation of Googles or Microsofts will be British".

Yet while the manifesto's ambitions are laudable - building a tech infrastructure to add billions to Britain's GDP - the document itself falls way short of guaranteeing such ambition will one day be turned into reality.

The manifesto's goal - "we will lay the foundation for a British technology revolution" - is underpinned by a pledge that the UK will get its own 100Mbps broadband network which the Tories say will generate 600,000 additional jobs and add £18bn to Britain's GDP.

However, while proclaiming the benefits of the superfast network, the manifesto itself seems content to skate over the economic and technological realities of building such infrastructure.

david cameron

Conservative Party leader David Cameron visiting the headquarters of British vacuum cleaner and fan maker Dyson
(Photo credit: Conservative Party)

The network certainly won't come cheap - the party has costed it at £29bn - with the private sector largely left to foot the bill.

While the Tories have pledged some degree of subsidy - £120m annually to be drawn from the BBC licence fee - it seems a somewhat optimistic figure, given the ISPs' reluctance to take fibre beyond 50 per cent of the population without public sector aid, without which the communications companies claim superfast broadband won't reach rural areas, where the return on investment of laying fibre optic cable is likely to be a long time coming, if indeed it ever does.

It's a figure that seems particularly hopeful when you take into account that the £120m will only be available as a loan or on a matched-funding basis, and only then from 2012, coming as it does from funds set aside for the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting.

And for all of the manifesto's talk about transforming technology in the UK, the implementation plan for superfast broadband remains less radical than that of the current government.

Labour's proposed 50p tax on landlines to fund the rollout of superfast broadband is expected to both raise more money - about £170m each year - and be able to provide subsidies at an earlier date. The tax is due to pass into law as part of the Finance Bill this spring.

The Tory proposals are also seeking to encourage telcos to lay fibre networks by forcing BT to open up its underground ducts and pipes to competitors.

However, the proposals seem unlikely to provide the incentive needed to fund a rollout of fibre in more remote areas.

According to Tim Johnson, chief analyst at Point Topic, the savings that telcos would make from being able to use BT's ducts would not make up for the lack of income available in sparsely populated locations.

"The costs are going to remain in low density areas whatever you do.

"Companies are not suddenly going to rush to use these ducts in these areas - you need to find some subsidy," he told silicon.com.

While the manifesto's plans to stimulate the creation of a nationwide superfast broadband are at best naïve, its claims around the network's speed are simply confused.

The manifesto states...

...that under a Conservative government, the 100Mbps broadband network will be "50 times faster than Labour's planned broadband network" - but that doesn't appear to be the case.

The "50 times faster" figure refers to Labour's pledge that everyone in the UK will get broadband speeds of up to 2Mbps by 2012 and not Labour's longer-term goals for high-speed broadband access.

In fact, the current government has promised to provide next-generation access, mainly through fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), to at least 90 per cent of the UK by 2017.

tory tech manifesto

Fibre is a key tech battleground for the main political parties
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Johnson said widespread fibre-to-the-curb access would result in downlink speeds of about 40Mbps and that by that time many people would have upgraded to fibre-to-the-home services, providing them with about 100Mbps.

And while Labour's Digital Britain blueprint for the nation's tech future sets a 2017 target for the rollout of next-generation access, the Tory manifesto provides no date for when their 100Mbps network will be complete, with the manifesto saying only "we will be the first country in Europe to extend superfast broadband to most of the population".

The gap between aspiration and reality widens further when you look at the manifesto's proposals for dealing with the issue of copyright.

Speaking at the launch of the manifesto, shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt restated the party's commitment to measures in the bill that would see repeat copyright pirates disconnected from the internet, and to an amendment to the bill that would allow the courts to issue injunctions ordering ISPs to block sites that provide access to copyright-infringing content, which critics fear could result in the service providers blocking access to legitimate content-sharing sites such as YouTube.

The manifesto commits the Tories to creating the "most favourable intellectual framework in the world for innovators and high-tech businesses" all the while maintaining "it is vital that any anti-piracy measures promote new business models rather than holding innovation back".

It is without doubt a tricky balancing act for any party but it's questionable how the Conservatives' support for the most draconian anti-piracy measures in the Digital Economy Bill, which would see copyright infringers lose their internet connection, can be seen as promoting new business models or not holding innovation back.

Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, a digital rights campaign body, described the Tory stance on intellectual property as confused.

"While the steps the Conservative party suggest for innovation look good, they stand at odds with their current actions.

"Copyright impacts on our freedom of speech, and every piece of software, website, electronic device that we use.

"The Conservative party seems to have understood this in their policy documents but is still treating negotiations in the Digital Economy Bill as an argument between the old hands. The result is a mess which they bear very significant responsibility for," he said.

While the tech industry is largely agreed that pirates must be tackled, few are likely to be comfortable with the approach the Tories - and indeed Labour - propose.

So while the manifesto may boast of being "the most ambitious technology agenda ever proposed", it seems that several of its key goals are backed up by far less radical policies - ones that mirror, or even fail to match, those of the current government.

One area where the manifesto's policies do come closer to...

...matching the rhetoric is its pledge to push for government IT contracts to be worth no more than £100m - a departure from the current government's love of big IT, such as the £12.7bn National Programme for IT or £7.1bn Defence Information Infrastructure.

The pledge would be backed up by other proposals to publish more tender documents for contracts and reduce the time that it takes to procure government IT contracts, making it cheaper for smaller companies to bid to provide such projects.

The proposal is designed to put an end to government overspends and to open up contracts to a wider number of suppliers, with the manifesto claiming that just nine IT companies have received 60 per cent of public sector IT spending under Labour.

But while these policies may be a genuine departure from the status quo, there are concerns over how well they fit with the Tories' aim of getting better value for money from government IT projects.

Richard Holway, chairman of analyst house TechMarketView, said there are several potential pitfalls to relying on a variety of different suppliers.

"The concept of huge numbers of SMEs undertaking work at a local level sounds good but it could be a recipe for duplicated work and inefficiency," he said in a research note.


Should government IT contracts be radically cut back?
(Credit: Shutterstock)

There could also be cost implications he said, adding: "Bulk discounts tend to apply to...well, bulk."

While its aims are laudable, questions remain over whether a Tory government would be swapping out one problematic approach to government IT for a stance beset by a new set of issues.

But there are pledges that are genuinely worthwhile, such as the manifesto's commitment to building new IT systems around open standards, which would ensure that different government systems are able to work together and freely exchange information.

Georgina O'Toole, research director with TechMarketView, said: "The world is moving on and open standards is a necessary precursor to giving maximum flexibility in terms of service delivery - be that SaaS [software as a service], or moving to shared services, or process outsourcing."

Other areas deserving of praise are more powers for the government CIO, simplification of tax credits for research and development, more open data in government and attempts to address a skills shortage in the UK, such as creating technical academies in every city and providing higher salaries from science and technology graduates who become teachers.

Karen Price, CEO of sector skills body e-skills UK, welcomed both the creation of academies and higher salaries for teachers. "The UK needs 110,000 new people to enter IT careers every year. We need to inspire more school students to pursue IT-related education and careers, and increasing the pool of talented IT teachers would help to do that," she said.

There are some laudable aims and some genuine wins for the technology industry within the Conservative Technology Manifesto then, but many of the pledges seem to be either the same old policies or unproven approaches to IT, dressed up as a radical new approach to technology.

The manifesto's ambition may be that "the next generation of Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks are British companies", but the Conservatives are a long way from being the catalyst for this lofty goal.

Editorial standards