Stephen Carter is the Minister for Communications, Technology & Broadcasting, Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR). Mr Carter served previously in a variety of high-level executive positions including: Group Chief Executive of Brunswick Group LLP; Founding Chief Executive of Ofcom, the Communications Regulator; Managing Director of NTL UK & Ireland; and as Managing Director & Chief Executive of J. Walter Thompson UK Limited. Mr Carter is a Past Chairman of the Marketing Group of Great Britain, Chairman of the Ashridge Business School, a Vice President of UNICEF UK and a Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stephen Carter was awarded a CBE in the 2006 Honours list for services to the Communications Industry. He is a law graduate from Aberdeen University and completed the Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Programme.
The Digital Britain Report describes the strategic approach the government envision taking to ensure “Britain’s place at the forefront of the digital economy”. It makes clear the need for a fundamental upgrade of Britain’s wired, wireless and broadcasting network infrastructures. The plan calls for establishing universal broadband access within five years; it specifies minimum broadband speeds and the infrastructure needed to deliver broadband services throughout the country. Private investment is thought to be sufficient to pay for most of the new infrastructure.
My goal as communications minister is to ensure Britain has a clear and achievable strategy in place to secure our position at the forefront of the digital economy. There is life after recession and we must make sure our companies are ready to take advantage of new opportunities when the market picks up. The Digital Britain report, launched last month, lays down the strategic approach government should be taking to ensure Britain’s place at the forefront of the digital economy. Although only at an interim stage, already one of the firm conclusions is that in order to reach that goal Britain needs a fundamental upgrade of our wired and wireless communications and broadcasting networks. This means action on spectrum, broadcasting and broadband. Broadband is becoming an increasingly integral tool for almost every company. This demand means that broadband will inevitably become a core part of the UK’s infrastructure, just as roads and electricity networks are today. It is therefore essential that we, as a nation, invest in high-speed broadband, both for our immediate economic needs and for those of future generations. In today’s economic downturn, creating a comprehensive and cohesive digital infrastructure is absolutely fundamental to our economic development. The debate now is about how we get there. The report provides a universal service commitment, ensuring minimum broadband connection speeds throughout the whole of the country. Establishing the correct infrastructure to deliver this is vital; it features right at the top of the Digital Britain agenda. Our competitive market has taken broadband out to 99 per cent of the country, but speeds are variable. Last year BT said it would invest £1.5 billion in next generation services and Virgin is already in the process of upgrading its network to 50mbps by the end of this year. Nevertheless, despite all the planned upgrades to infrastructure, we can expect only about 96 per cent of the country to be within reach of 2 Mb/s service by 2012. If we are to achieve the aim of establishing universal broadband within the next five years, and maintain Britain’s status as a world leader in the global digital economy, then government requires an active and strategic approach. We need to identify what is standing in the way of a full rollout and how to help industry to establish the infrastructure needed. In practice, I believe, we will develop plans for Universal Service Commitment to be effective by 2012 and delivered by a mixture of fixed and mobile, wired and wireless means. The independent Caio Review, published in September last year, found that the UK is well placed to deliver private investment in high speed broadband networks and the case for major government intervention was weak. We also need to address the need for a Highway Code for our digital transportation networks. Rather than ‘regulation of the Internet’, it needs to be something more delicate that adequately reflects the need to create a balance between freedom and mutuality, privacy and control and security and access. This poses a challenge for the traditional structures and line accountabilities of government, which, unsurprisingly, are not structured around the Internet. They can identify common issues, but these appear in different guises in different parts of many individual departments; this can result in a series of isolated initiatives that fail to deliver a strategic response to the big questions. Economic conditions for investment are now the worst seen in many years, so we must look at ways the government can facilitate and finance the next generation of broadband without distorting the market by overlooking monopoly and sacrificing competition for investment. Another pivotal element of the strategy will be making possible the widespread online delivery of public services, which will require both the universality of availability and the universality of participation. Today, the 70 per cent of individuals who are online at home and up to 99 per cent online at work are adapting to the digital world at a much faster pace than government, central or local, and their expectations have risen accordingly. A gap is opening up between individual citizens’ and businesses’ expectations of what broadband technology can do for them and the public sector’s ability to exploit and use those same capabilities. We need a radical step change in the way we think and act to prevent that gap becoming unacceptably wide. At present, the take-up of e-government services by individuals is only slightly higher than the European average and take-up by businesses, particularly small and medium enterprises, is slightly below average. If we are successful in establishing universal broadband, the potential benefits to e-government are enormous - especially for a vast improvement in costs and efficiency. This will only work, however, if we can ensure that the entire population is empowered to access and use digital media. We must aim for our e-skills to be amongst the top three globally. We will need to tackle the issue of why 40 per cent of those who can get broadband now choose not to take it. When published in the early summer, the full Digital Britain report will bring together the government’s contributions in a coherent and focused form. I appreciate there has been criticism from some companies that we are not acting quickly enough, but it is essential that we use this time to work with businesses and determine the right course of action. The digital economy provides us with the opportunity to create thousands of new jobs and we cannot take our responsibility lightly.