Like the Chancellor’s annual budget announcement, long anticipated Government reports rarely manage to exceed expectations. The same can be said of the much-heralded Digital Britain report, published this week.
Many had been hoped it would give new impetus and direction to the industry, which has begun to suffer something of a mid-life crisis. It was a bit hopeful to believe that a Labour administration in its final throes would chart the future of communications with a boldness and clarity that has deserted it in other walks. And so it has proved to be.
Awkward decisions about who gets what spectrum have been handed off to a technical tribunal. Mobile operators could not agree a common position, and despite busy deputations and toing and froing, Lord Carter didn’t hear enough to adjudicate between them. This leaves hanging the question of whether O2 and Vodafone will retain their privileged position as holders of the choicest spectrum. A cynic might wonder if Lord Carter wanted to kick this ball into the long grass. However, with a 90 day deadline for a decision to be made it seems unthinkable this issue could drag on past a general election.
Much will be written about the ‘broadband tax’ – the report’s one surprise (and an unwelcome one at that). With echoes of the BBC license fee, this levy will see every landline customer cough up £10 a year to underpin future investment in super-fast fibre optic broadband. I don’t remember anyone offering to pay for mobile operators’ roll out of 3G (still less their license fees). Further criticisms will include the low universal target for broadband speed.
Despite these gripes, Lord Carter has altered the way the mobile industry sees its role in the UK. Whatever does or doesn’t materialise this side of the election, that’s got to be a good thing.