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Communications: Digital Britain Review

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consultations they have had on the Digital Britain review; and when the interim report of that review will be published.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Question. Prior to the interim report, we have had seven steering board meetings with our 11 independent experts, eight formal presentations to the board, more than 30 research submissions, more than 100 engagements with more than 50 stakeholders, and detailed discussions with all three devolved Administrations and all nine regional development agencies. I will make a Statement to the House on publication of the interim report, but we will continue consulting up to the time of the final report.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that very full Answer to my Question. Does he accept Ofcom’s analysis of the difficult situation facing ITV and the other commercial broadcasters and that there is a need for urgent action to resolve the difficulties facing those companies?

My Lords, the Government certainly accept Ofcom’s analysis of the challenge facing commercial public service broadcasting, which in the main is driven by two things: first, the decline in the value of traditional advertising and, therefore, the revenues generated by those businesses; and, secondly, the multiplication of other ways of watching and using content. We received the report yesterday and it will be part of the input into the Digital Britain process. Some very profound questions are raised, particularly for the publicly owned public service broadcasters, in particular, Channel 4 and the BBC. We will take the necessary time to come to the right answers.

My Lords, we all recognise the huge value of the digital and communications sector to the United Kingdom and look forward to the publication of this review. Will the Minister elaborate on what is being done to promote digital inclusion at a time when almost 17 million people across Britain do not have access to a computer, either at home or at work?

My Lords, I very much welcome that question. Notwithstanding the challenges facing public service broadcasting, the issue the noble Lord raises is the more profound, long-term question. There are still issues about absolute availability in this country of broadband services. We shall seek to address those and the related resilience and reliability issues. As the noble Lord rightly points out, there are very profound issues about the numbers of people participating, even when those services are available. The Government have done much work already on digital inclusion and there is a cross-government programme. The Government have also announced a specific initiative in relation to access through schools to families who are not participating. We intend to readdress some or all of those questions in the interim report. I would be disappointed if, when the noble Lord sees what we have to say, he did not feel that we were taking those issues seriously.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the creative industries today represent a beacon of light in the financial meltdown surrounding us, particularly with the opportunity for them to create and maintain jobs, given the unemployment problems? Does he accept that there is a suspicion—and indeed comment—that his Digital Britain review in these circumstances will be insufficiently far reaching and imaginative?

My Lords, let us not rush to judgment. I am sure that when the noble Lord sees the report he will be able to make his own analysis, as will others. The initiative that led the Prime Minister to commission this review was to try to produce an imaginative and, we hope, far-reaching piece of work. I could not agree more with the noble Lord’s comment about a beacon of light. Last night, I had the pleasure and privilege of making a speech to the creative and communication industries in the appropriately named National Treasures Room in the Natural History Museum. I made the point, which I reiterate to the House, that as we look at the economy and the issues facing it globally and domestically and look for industry sectors to step up to the plate to provide the economy and the country with the growth, success and leadership that financial services have provided for much of the past decade and more, the creative and communication industries must be at the head of the pack.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that coming after a report by Ofcom, on which there has been extensive consultation, there is a risk that his review could be seen as stalling, while still showing concern, and that any delay could prejudice the availability of commercial funding as it gets even scarcer?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that very fair question. The Ofcom report published yesterday was on an important, but specific, issue; namely, public service broadcasting. The Digital Britain report and review is to look across the entire digital communications industry. The first needs to be answered but it needs to be answered in the context of the second. On the broader point of whether it will have the effect of stalling, we are aiming to reach final and determinative conclusions by the early summer. That is a significantly fast pace.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one way to ensure that in future every household has broadband and, if possible, super broadband would be to use some of the money that will be taken from the sale of the analogue spectrum for that purpose?

My Lords, my noble friend will forgive me if I do not comment on spectrum hypothecation or the possible destination of the proceeds from spectrum sales. However, he made a critical point for public and government policy about how we make broadband services at the right speeds, and at speeds that have future, as opposed to current, capability, available and affordable to the entire country.

My Lords, does the Minister accept the estimate of £28.6 billion for the rollout of fibre to every home in the country? If he does, will the Government review the necessity of having universal rollout, which means that we will never get the fibre that is necessary in certain sectors of the economy?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a question on which there are almost as many views as there are numbers attached to the cost. We have had many submissions from many sources about the cost of fibre deployment. Prior to the publication of the interim report, I shall say two things, but perhaps we can return to this question. First, most technologists say that future networks will be a mixture of fixed and wireless capabilities, rather than purely fixed, and the economics change significantly depending on how fibre is deployed and how interoperable those technologies are. Secondly, the market is already providing early, healthy signs of accelerated interest in fibre deployment. There are legitimate questions about whether the market will ever provide anything resembling universal availability, but initial deployment is beginning, and that is very welcome.