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Blue-Sky Thoughts on Digital Britain

Digital BritainBill Thomp­son arranged a “Dig­i­tal Britain Uncon­fer­ence” in Cam­bridge on May 7th, which I attend­ed. It was a small affair, with a total of around half a dozen peo­ple involved over the course of the meet­ing. We observed that it being so easy to get to Lon­don, many peo­ple from the area would have gone to the Lon­don meet­ing at the ICA the night before.

Here are some mus­ings around what we dis­cussed. [The fol­low­ing became essen­tial­ly the bulk of the Cam­bridge con­tri­bu­tion to the Dig­i­tal Britain Uncon­fer­ence Report.]

We start­ed the gath­er­ing next to the lamp-post in the cen­tre of Park­er’s Piece in Cam­bridge and ulti­mate­ly adjourned to the Pic­ture­House café nearby.

On the agen­da were three main areas: which we iden­ti­fied as core con­cerns and restrict­ed our­selves essen­tial­ly to those areas: Infra­struc­ture, Broad­cast­ing and Rights.

We began by not­ing that we were aware that there was a dif­fer­ence between “blue sky” think­ing and what was actu­al­ly regard­ed as prac­ti­cal to achieve, but inevitably as we did adopt a fair­ly expan­sive view as far as infra­struc­ture is con­cerned, that fed over into oth­er areas of the discussion.


Both Bill and I have jour­nal­is­tic and broad­cast back­grounds (he being more accom­plished than I am) but one thing we have in com­mon is that we are in sev­er­al sens­es not only con­tent providers but also used to work­ing with con­tent providers. As a result it’s per­haps inevitable that we are going to assume (and I think right­ly) that if not every­one, then at least a great many more peo­ple than are cur­rent­ly able, would like to become con­tent providers them­selves, whether they want to pod­cast, video­cast or even run TV or radio chan­nels. All of that means that what­ev­er net­work infra­struc­ture we might see being made avail­able, it had to be sym­met­ri­cal: it had to have equal up- and down­load speeds.

And inevitably those speeds would want to be sub­stan­tial, espe­cial­ly if we want to do HDTV on demand, for exam­ple. We did not feel that the sug­gest­ed 2Mb/s uni­ver­sal broad­band ser­vice, deliv­ered by run­ning fibre to a cab­i­net at the end of the road and some­thing like nor­mal cop­per wire from there to the house, was suf­fi­cient, and favoured a solu­tion bring­ing fibre to the indi­vid­ual home or business.

There are like­ly to be some objec­tions to this. Fibre to the indi­vid­ual router is prob­a­bly ten times more expen­sive than run­ning it to the cab­i­net. Sym­met­ri­cal routers mean expen­sive high-speed trans­mit­ters. And in addi­tion, there’s an argu­ment that says that what is being done here is the equiv­a­lent of bring­ing basic mains water or elec­tric­i­ty sup­ply to the most remote parts of the UK. A col­league of mine points out that there is a vil­lage in South Wales that got mains elec­tric­i­ty after he got broad­band in his Cam­bridgeshire vil­lage. And any­way, what would every­one do with all that bandwidth?

We, I think, would take the view that if South Korea can aim high then so can we, and we real­ly ought to offer peo­ple some­thing in the order of 200Mb/s even if you or I can’t think of the things that oth­ers might want to do with it all…yet. Just as we can think of pos­si­bil­i­ties, so can oth­er peo­ple: we are a cre­ative lot in this coun­try. Look at how pop­u­lar inno­v­a­tive, sim­ple-to-use tech­nolo­gies like Audio­Boo, which enables peo­ple to record short audio seg­ments on their mobile phones and share them with the world, have caught on. Video­boo is on its way, and apps like this are just the begin­ning. Look out: “Here comes every­body”, to quote Clay Shirky.

It’s quite like­ly that some parts of the coun­try would sim­ply be impos­si­ble to access direct­ly with fibre. In some cas­es a point-to-point microwave link could be used to car­ry a data feed out to a remote vil­lage, for exam­ple, with land-based dis­tri­b­u­tion at the far end.

In addi­tion we would envis­age the estab­lish­ment of an exten­sive wire­less net­work, using WiMax or sim­i­lar tech­nol­o­gy. This would pro­vide high-speed mobile access, back­up in the case of a pick­axe through a cable, and dis­tri­b­u­tion with­in rur­al areas. Indeed, the idea would be that you could trav­el around the coun­try while lis­ten­ing to inter­net radio or even watch­ing a TV channel.


Which brings us on to broad­cast­ing. Bill Thomp­son used a phrase on BBC World Ser­vice’s Dig­i­tal Plan­et recent­ly which I think is very apt. He not­ed that what­ev­er dis­tri­b­u­tion medi­um was in use in the future, “the space occu­pied by radio” would always be there (indeed, despite all the oth­er options avail­able today, radio lis­ten­ing in the UK is at a 10-year high). And the space occu­pied by tele­vi­sion. And so on. If you have high-speed inter­net access all over the coun­try, at home or on the move, then you have obvi­at­ed the entire exist­ing broad­cast infra­struc­ture (and the cell­phone net­works, while we’re at it), but you have not obvi­at­ed the pro­vi­sion of con­tent — although the pos­si­bil­i­ties are imme­di­ate­ly a great deal broad­er. Not only can exist­ing broad­cast­ers be car­ried via the net­work but entire­ly new ones too — and increas­ing­ly, “broad­cast­ers” can be any­where on a con­tin­uüm from an indi­vid­ual to a large cor­po­ra­tion, and their lis­ten­ers can num­ber a hand­ful of friends or mil­lions across the world.

In addi­tion, the car­ry­ing of broad­cast­ing via the inter­net means that on the one hand the phys­i­cal lay­er that car­ries the net­work is imma­te­r­i­al (it’s what­ev­er gets the inter­net to the sub­scribers): it’s all the same kind of sig­nal; and on the oth­er, every com­mu­ni­ca­tions device you have will essen­tial­ly have the same front end: an IP-based com­mu­ni­ca­tion mod­ule. At the oth­er end it might look like a TV or a radio or a phone.

How’s it done?

It’s quite obvi­ous that a high-speed Nation­al Net­work Infra­struc­ture is not going to be built by pri­vate com­pa­nies on their own. Even with Gov­ern­ment sup­port it could be dif­fi­cult. Every­one would want to focus on the easy and thus prof­itable urban and inter-urban paths and nobody would be up for the rur­al areas. When the tele­phone sys­tem was installed, it was a nation­al pub­lic monop­oly. As a result, the prof­itable and easy urban rout­ings were able to sub­sidise the dif­fi­cult and thus expen­sive rur­al ones.

In the same way, the NNI should be a pub­licly-owned monop­oly so that such a sys­tem of easy sub­si­dis­ing dif­fi­cult can exist. Of course the project will involve sub­con­tract­ing to pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions, but the project would be man­aged and oper­at­ed on a nation­al basis. The NNI would be respon­si­ble for bring­ing the pipe into the house and main­tain­ing the ser­vice to that point; beyond that the user would install, or have installed, their own routers and oth­er equip­ment, and could employ spe­cial­ist providers to han­dle this along with main­te­nance and oth­er facilities.

An anal­o­gy I pre­sent­ed via the online link to the York­shire and Hum­ber­side DBUC a few days before was that the NNI is like Net­work Rail and the rest of us either run the trains or trav­el on them. Of course the anal­o­gy went down like a lead bal­loon, but you can eas­i­ly grasp what I am get­ting at. It should also be remem­bered that we had over 30 years of run­ning nation­al enter­pris­es, by and large suc­cess­ful­ly, under Gov­ern­ments of either colour and we would be bet­ter at it today than we were then: we know how to sub­di­vide and localise organ­i­sa­tions to max­imise their effi­cien­cy, for example.

In addi­tion, com­mu­ni­ty efforts could help reduce effec­tive costs, and — for exam­ple — sub­scribers could help make access eas­i­er as in this Nor­we­gian expe­ri­ence.

If peo­ple have direct access to the inter­net at high speed, what does an ISP do? Basi­cal­ly, the tra­di­tion­al role dis­ap­pears, and instead ISPs become “Inter­net Ser­vices Providers”, pro­vid­ing the web, email and data man­age­ment ser­vices that peo­ple can­not, or choose not to, oper­ate them­selves. In addi­tion, with the NNI’s respon­si­bil­i­ty end­ing at the doorstep, there would be plen­ty of room for inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors as well as larg­er organ­i­sa­tions to sup­ply, install, con­fig­ure and main­tain the routers and oth­er on-site infra­struc­ture required by sub­scribers to access the system.

How would it be paid for?

The sys­tem would be most eas­i­ly cov­ered by direct tax­a­tion, mak­ing the indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion rel­a­tive­ly small. It seems that “spare” dig­i­tal switchover funds have already been spo­ken for at least twice so I would not expect those to be avail­able, and in any event, this is a rather larg­er project than 2Mb/s.

Dig­i­tal Rights

If we are going to let a mil­lion broad­cast­ers bloom and make it pos­si­ble to down­load an HD movie in a mat­ter of min­utes, peo­ple need to have the rights to han­dle copy­right mate­r­i­al legal­ly. The obvi­ous answer is a form of blan­ket licens­ing, where for an annu­al fee, you can do what you like. Aver­aged out over the online pop­u­la­tion this would be a rel­a­tive­ly small amount.

Dis­tri­b­u­tion ini­tial­ly could be via a “black box” sys­tem in which all the income goes into a fund which would be dis­trib­uted pro­por­tion­al­ly to artists etc in the same pro­por­tion as oth­er rights. How­ev­er there would be a cap, as with the Pub­lic Lend­ing Right, or a slid­ing scale, so the income for an extreme­ly pop­u­lar artist would lev­el off some­what, while still remain­ing sub­stan­tial. A fund would be set up, admin­is­tered by the roy­al­ty col­lec­tion soci­eties, to ear­mark a pro­por­tion of this income for devel­op­ing new talent.

If nec­es­sary a dis­tinc­tion could be made between con­sumers, cre­ators and dis­trib­u­tors of copy­right mate­r­i­al so, for exam­ple, there might be a blan­ket fee for enjoy­ing copy­right mate­r­i­al and an addi­tion­al fee for run­ning a music radio sta­tion. The prin­ci­ple should be to encour­age user-gen­er­at­ed con­tent and rely on the fact that lots of peo­ple pay­ing a small amount will prob­a­bly gen­er­ate a great deal more mon­ey than a few pay­ing a lot.

In the long term a “black box” sys­tem would become unwork­able as the roy­al­ties gen­er­at­ed by NNI usage would become the most sig­nif­i­cant source, and thus there would be no ref­er­ence against which to dis­trib­ute them pro­por­tion­al­ly. At this point there would be the need to intro­duce an auto­mat­ic log­ging sys­tem in which each media usage was record­ed and used to cal­cu­late roy­al­ty payments.

Regard­ing copy­right in more gen­er­al terms, the prin­ci­ple should be estab­lished that no pub­lic-domain work should ever be tak­en out of the pub­lic domain: changes of copy­right leg­is­la­tion could not be retroac­tive as a mat­ter of principle.

And that about rounds up my thoughts fol­low­ing the Dig­i­tal Britain Cam­bridge Uncon­fer­ence Part 1. Thanks to Bill for organ­is­ing the event and to Ellie and the oth­ers who dropped in for a chat dur­ing this infor­mal meeting.