Eye2Eye: E-envoy on a wired Britain Pt III

Pinder on government broadband strategy and killer apps for broadband

The government is about to announce a broadband strategy. Are there going to be some new announcements in that?

Yes, there will be some new announcements and, no, I don't want to talk about it. It will be announced soon.

Why does the government feel it needs a new broadband strategy?

It is very important we get the infrastructure right. Clearly we want to make sure as much of the country as possible is covered by broadband so that businesses that want to use it can. I think that coverage at the moment is patchy but people are saying that the take-up of ADSL has been disappointing. I think that demand will be there and we will need stacks of bandwidth available in the next few years. We want to make sure that that is available to everybody.

What were your views on the broadband fixed wireless auction which was seen as an alternative delivery method, but didn't attract operators?

It didn't. What we have to do is demonstrate that the demand is there because people will pay out the money to build the infrastructure if the demand is recognisable. We have to help articulate the demand and also demonstrate that there is a public sector demand as well.

Is there going to be a killer application for broadband do you think?

Video-on-demand is going to be important. I think that the growth of application service providers [ASPs] is also going to increase the amount of bandwidth there is.

How would the average citizen make use of an ASP?

We were talking earlier on about the cost of a PC and the cost of digital television. Increasingly software will be made available from central servers rather than down at the client end. If you are doing that you will need more broadband.

How are you going to convince consumers that broadband is a sexy technology that they can't live without?

I'm not sure it is government's job to do that. It is our job to try to make the conditions right for us to be the number one country and we want a population that can understand what the Internet can do. It is not my business to go to the average Coronation Street viewer and say "Turn off Coronation Street and start using the Internet for broadband applications please." I want to let people know how the Internet can make peoples' lives easier.

Are we going to have to accept that there is going to be a rural/urban divide in the delivery of broadband?

There is clearly an issue. We will be looking at ways to get broadband to businesses in rural areas. I am worried about the rural divide, partly because I myself live in a rural area up in Shropshire. I would want to make sure as much as possible is done to avoid them being disadvantaged.

Is it more important that we get businesses online than it is to get the average citizen online?

It is important for different reasons. Businesses, in the first instance, are going to be the bigger users of broadband and businesses are a generator of wealth in the economy. Part of my job is to make the UK a better place to live because people are using the Internet and it makes their lives easier, but also to make it a richer place to live because there is a vibrant private sector that is using this stuff.

How many UK businesses are now online?

Most small businesses are online and are using the Internet -- ahead of the target set for us a year ago. We want to get digital schemes in place to ensue there is much greater availability of digital certificates and digital signatures. Later this year it will be possible for solicitors to do conveyancing electronically. In next year or so digital signatures will become just as valid as paper signatures. We then need to get the technology, the physical digital signature, out to people. Banks are talking about providing their customers with digital signatures within the next year or so.

Making the UK the "best place to do e-commerce" is a key phrase of government. What would you single out to persuade a new business to come to the UK?

The infrastructure and the climate. The fact that we have a business climate with digital certificates in place. We have a lively set of entrepreneurs and a skilled population that is making use of it. We also have a good supply of skilled people in the middle of a world shortage of people with digital skills.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for you in your new role?

The toughest nut to crack is probably this issue of getting universal access in its broadest sense. Getting skill levels up, getting interest and motivation up and getting the physical environment right. How we get ourselves to be a wired up, switched on community and that means everyone, including my 80-year-old dad in Sutton Caulfield.

And in 2005, how far do you think we will have come on that road?

I think we will have come a long way. When people were talking to me about doing this job I was expressing the hope that by 2004/2005 this job wouldn't be necessary and that what we are doing will be so well embedded into our way of life that we won't need a single focal point.

I hope so and good luck.

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