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Lord Carter on playing politics with Digital Britain

The Labour peer talks about whether an incoming Tory government would shelve the Digital Britain recommendations, in his report and how to deal with illegal file-sharing
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Stephen Carter, the former communications minister who wrote the Digital Britain report while in government earlier this year, opened this year's IP Expo show in London with his first public appearance since leaving office.

ZDNet UK caught up with Lord Carter after his speech on Wednesday to discuss the future for his recommendations, particularly those regarding next-generation broadband access, wireless spectrum and how to deal with persistent file-sharers of copyrighted material.

Q: If the Conservative party were to win the upcoming election, would the implementation of Digital Britain take a hit?
A: Up to a point. Ninety percent of the recommendations in it are relatively non-contentious. I suspect around 75 of the 82 recommendations will go through regardless of which party's in power.

There will clearly be some debate around some of the others — largely the ones about money, such as investment in infrastructure, and who pays for what content, and content protection and piracy and security.

One of the most widely debated recommendations of Digital Britain was the introduction of the 50p-per-month levy on fixed broadband connections, in order to pay for a nationwide rollout of next-generation broadband access. How do you feel about the common description of this fee as a 'tax'?
It's not a phraseology that I would use, but I wouldn't dispute that it's a levy. If we want something, we're going to have to find a way of paying for it — either through the commercial market, through debt or equity, or the government pays, or there's a levy.

Is the levy an issue that could suffer from being politicised? Do you think it is being misrepresented?
There are some issues that benefit from being non-political, but we're in a period where that's a slightly naive hope.

All issues run the risk of being misrepresented. People feel strongly about some of these questions and rightly so. Whenever governments use their elected authority to extract money from taxpayers, that's a legitimate issue of public debate.

Having a debate about it is legitimate, but politicising that debate is generally unhelpful. You should always look at it in context, in terms of what's happening around the world.

In Australia, the government is writing a cheque. In China, the authorities are allocating spectrum by regional franchises. In other areas, [next-generation access is being spurred on] by giving incumbent operators regulatory protections.

We all want the same end, but we're using different means.

How important is radio spectrum? There were reports of the business secretary, Peter Mandelson, bashing operators' heads together in order to reach a resolution over the delayed auction and the refarming issue, but we have heard little since...
It is important, which is why we dedicated a lot of time into it in the report. I'm sure Peter is not bashing heads — perhaps knocking them. My sense is that progress is being made, and that's important because wireless capability, infrastructure and services are important.

In your speech, you suggested that wireless access was being overlooked by many in the debate over next-generation fixed access. Do you think wireless will be the primary mode of access in the future?
I just don't know. I think there's been a material shift among the application developers, the network operators and some of the more innovative software and service players — that device-centricity and mobility is going to be where it's at.

It doesn't become fixed versus wireless — it becomes fixed and wireless. How do you extract juice out of the network at every part of it? Can you architect networks in a way that takes out some of the congestions and deal with some of the encryption issues? You have to have secure authentication whilst having the mobility that people want.

You gave a personal opinion in your speech that fibre-to-the-kerb is a more likely solution to the issue of next-generation fixed access than fibre-to-the-home. Does your view on the potential of wireless inform that opinion?
It does a bit, but it's also informed by the hard economics of it.

Are there any parts of Digital Britain that you feel have been overlooked or ignored?
It's a technical piece of work — it's not a light read. My experience has been that even the more technical bits have not been ignored by the people who are interested in it.

Digital Britain addressed the issue of illegal file-sharing by recommending that the disconnection of file-sharers be avoided. The government subsequently said, in the middle of the file-sharing consultation, that it thought disconnection could be a viable option. Did you feel that your recommendations were undermined by Peter Mandelson's department?
No, and I will reserve comment on that, because I'm not an active minister now, I'm a private citizen.

My reading of that was that the government was sharpening the pencil of the point that had been made in the white paper, rather than necessarily rewriting it. If you read the final report, it does talk about browser suspension and bandwidth capping, and that's not a hop, skip and a jump away from what Lord Mandelson is talking about.

I would interpret it as the sharpening of the pencil around piracy and content protection, rather than anything more than that — but that's a matter for the government to comment on now.

But you said disconnections should be avoided.
Like many of these things, you've got conflicting views of the universe. Rights owners, a bit like network operators — it's slightly aligned into the net neutrality debate — have a view that in this free-for-all we are forgetting some basic tenets of security, copyright protection and the right to commercially exploit your own intellectual property.

They're important issues. We made that very clear in the report, too.

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