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Broadband for all soundbite trumps content, quality

Media luminaries unpick the Carter Report

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By now you probably have a pretty good idea of what is in Lord Carter’s "Digital Britain" Report. There’s the government drawing back from a clampdown on internet piracy, the switching off of FM radio, preserving the BBC licence fee – and instituting a 50p a month stealth tax to provide megacorps such as Vodafone and BT with "seed capital".

But what do the experts think? Over the last two weeks, Westminster Forums have hosted two seminars to look at some of the bigger issues raised by what Lord Carter did – and didn’t – say in his report.

In "Dear Stephen", first up for debate was the supposedly ambitious government target of 2 Megabit broadband for all. Michael Rawlinson, Direct General of ELSPA visibly salivated at the idea of 80 Megabit, which he claimed to be a speed available in some parts of Korea today.

Patrick Barwise, professor of marketing and management at the London Business School, was unimpressed by government obsession with "fat pipes". He argued that the barriers for the 40 per cent of the UK population not yet on the internet were not financial, and would not be satisfied by access to games or streaming. They would probably be happy with much slower speed basic services, if they were relevant to them.

The target was therefore more to do with grabbing headlines than meeting the real needs of net users.

This debate continued at last week’s seminar, "Broadband for all", which focused on the presumption that people ought to be online, and identifying the obstacles to getting them there. In this respect, much was made of "empowerment", giving individuals the confidence and the desire to use the internet.

Some speakers talked about "trickle down" – the idea that net usage will gradually broaden of its own accord from early adopters to everyone. Against this was the possibility of wielding a stick, with delivery of public services increasingly shifting online, and benefits perhaps in time being payable online only.

Also raised were issues around the cost and practicality of open reach for all: whether individuals in the wilds of Scotland should be entitled to the same level of service as everyone else – and if so, who should pay for the high incremental cost of delivering it.

A constant theme to many contributions was funding. Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Media Group, was just one of several speakers to highlight the issues created by an ever-widening pool of content on the web, and the problems of finding a business model that would allow the funding of quality output.

Local news was widely recognised to be in crisis, and one way to prop it up would be through some form of central government funding. As similar arguments were hinted at in a number of presentations, this appears to be a paradox that the industry has not yet fully articulated.

The explosion of free content on the web is a good, democratic thing: however, to the extent that it undermines traditional media, these will increasingly rely on a mixture of levies, fees and special subsidies from government to keep them going, with all the dangers such arrangements pose for subtle state shaping of the media message.

Democracy by one means could be the death (or at least, severe truncation) of democratic expression by another.

Several speakers called on the government to review its stance on product placement in shows, as a means to stem losses sustained as advertising moved away from traditional channels and onto the internet. The hope was expressed that the replacement of Andy Burnham by Ben Bradshaw at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport would allow this issue to be re-opened.

A somewhat specialised spat broke out between Google and a number of panel members, who took exception to its role as an "online aggregator". According to Carolyn McCall, Google indexes her group’s content and sells advertising around it, so making it increasingly difficult to make any return from that content. This was denied by Luc Delany from Google, who claimed that Google does not sell advertising on their news service.

A rather more controversial point was raised by Patrick Barwise, who asked repeatedly what proportion of the revenue that Google takes from the UK is returned to it as investment. That question remained unanswered, despite the presence of a number of senior Googlers.

The Carter report was seen as biased towards issues of infrastructure, and failing to pay sufficient attention to the nature of content and quality.

A commonly expressed view was that the report also failed adequately to deal with the issue of DAB and, as one speaker put it, had really kicked it out into the long grass, expecting Ofcom to deal with it. That could be a problem, given that the Tories appear not to have much time for Ofcom.

Finally, political change also left a large question mark hovering over the report. Lord Carter has now announced that he will be moving on from his role as Communications Minister. New legislation that would address some of the financial requirements in his report will not be discussed until shortly before May 2010, when political change is in the air.

Whether the Tories would take his report forward was a matter for some speculation – but the consensus seemed to be that for all its faults, the Carter Report was the best way forward for now, and it deserved to be supported. ®

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