Digital Britain: More fudge than foresight

Digital Britain is to be a hodgepodge of hopes, slapped wrists and best efforts. That's for the best
Written by Leader , Contributor

If the economic events of the past 18 months have done much harm, they have also done some good.

The government now feels able to announce a tax-and-spend approach to funding the UK's next-generation broadband, with a 50p annual tax on fixed telephone lines going towards funding fast broadband for one-third of the country. While not the exuberant nationalisation we have proposed in the past, it's a solid and useful commitment towards universal service.

The rest of the report is another matter. Had the economy been kinder, we could perhaps have compared it to Woolworths Pick 'n' Mix. Broadband access is an essential right and a unrivalled conduit for learning, self-improvement and economic growth, yet the business ideas of the analogue generation are still to be allowed to squeeze that access in support of antiquated distribution and control.

"Digital" is the hero, but the heroics quoted — the web, the internet, digital music and video — would be nothing without the essential catalyst of open standards. But on this point, there is almost nothing said. Perhaps a word count give the strongest clue to Digital Britain's subconscious: in 245 pages, 'open standard' gets six hits, the same as "Microsoft". "Security" gets 69. Yet the speed advantages of next-generation broadband are illustrated by "an entire Star Wars DVD in three minutes" — illegal under any circumstances.

The overall tone of the report is of an earnest, with-it vicar, full of pious hopes and vague plans but desperately short of real engagement with the real world. Again, textual analysis helps. The verbs following the phrase "The government will..." are long on wishes, short on action: "signal", "consult", "enable", "pursue", "review", "support", "monitor", "expedite", "resolve", "facilitate", "encourage", "take account". We must be good and accept "free from" as well as "free to", or else Ofcom will write us a nasty letter — the modern, atheist equivalent of demonic possession.

As a collection of nice-enough ideas and right-direction guidance, Digital Britain holds up. As a solid plan of action, with proper milestones, testable commitments and a coherent vision, it falls down. As a revolutionary document, recognising the fundamental seachange in rights and responsibilities conferred by the biggest upset in intellectual affairs since literacy, it doesn't even twitch the meter.

Yet that may save us. This portmanteau puddingstone of indigestible bureaucracy leaves enough room for the true major driving force of Digital Britain to continue: our ability to take this stuff and do with it what we consider right.

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