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Blue-Sky Thoughts on Digital Britain

by Richard Elen on 11 May, 2009

in Science & Technology

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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Kiely May 12, 2009 at 10:28

Just for clarity.
Note - the proposed 2Mb will not need fiber to the curb. The thought is a combination of adsl, hspda (mobile) wifi and Cable, the issue to resolve is coverage, no thought on quality.

The BT FTTC and Virgin (Docsis 3.) support 50Mb but it will be £40-£50 pm + your existing phone rental/calls + TV

FTTC like our our Broadband service is not engineered to be a broadcast infrastructure, yes to downloads and best effort streaming.

I hope this is helpful.

cyberdoyle May 13, 2009 at 08:02

great posting, sounds like you have it all sussed far better than the people writing the Digital britain report! We do need the infrastructure in order to stay near the front, otherwise this country will be left behind. You asked how it could be financed?
Here, and in many places there are loadsa tradesmen unemployed, and diggers standing idle as the building industry is in recession. Instead of govt paying them dole it could employ them to build the network that will revitalise this country.

Richard Elen May 13, 2009 at 10:10

Thanks for the helpful comments!

Yes, fibre to the door would be an ideal infrastucture project for the construction industry and we could move on it today. If we are to revitalise the economy at least partially via public spending, then this would be an ideal project (along with railway infrastructure). Certainly makes more sense to me than paying the people who got us into this mess...

cyberdoyle May 29, 2009 at 11:11

hey Richard, totally agree with you there, so many tradesmen unemployed, why not give them money to work instead of money to be bored?

Richard Elen May 29, 2009 at 12:48

Totally agree, cyberdoyle, and thanks for the Tweet!

Quick note to anyone who arrived on this page due to an erroneous link, my article on the final Digital Britain Unconferences Report and Summary (and the embedded docs themselves) can be found here: https://brideswell.com/content/?p=148. If you agree with the findings and recommendations in the Report, please add your name to it using the link to the DBUC site provided. Thanks!

AndrewBoldman June 4, 2009 at 14:58

I really liked this post. Can I copy it to my site? Thank you in advance.

Richard Elen June 4, 2009 at 15:12

Sure you can: please attribute it to me. You might also like to note that this ended up as the official report on the Cambridge Digital Britain Unconference and the complete Report is now available here: http://digitalbritainunconference.wordpress.com/final-report/ - if you feel like linking back to that it would be great. Thanks!

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