Towards a better Britain?

Broadband, people say, will improve the way we work, rest and play. Robert Colvile reports on the fi

In Broadband Britain, things will be different. Information will flow thick and fast, transforming almost everything we do. A hospital patient, for example, could call up his medical notes and raise any concerns with his doctor in a quick videoconference before tuning his personal screen to the TV channel of his choice. Or, if his injuries aren't too serious, he could take part remotely in a meeting at the other end of the country which he would otherwise have been forced to miss.

Regrettably, we are some way off this information utopia, and so a nasty fall meant that Alun Michael, the minister for rural affairs, was entirely unable to attend the inaugural New Statesman/BT round table on the transformative power of broadband. Held in Exeter, the capital of south-west England, it was the first in a series of seminars being organised around the country with the aim of highlighting the varying opportunities and difficulties that broadband presents at a regional level.

John Mills, director of rural policy at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, generously filled in for the minister, and was joined by senior figures from across the public sector - local councils, the regional development agency, South-West Tourism and the Arts Council of England. But this was not just a conversation among government actors. As Mills was quick to admit, "government doesn't have all the answers on this", and his own department is conscious that it needs to study the issue more. To assist in this task, the round table, chaired by James Crabtree of the Citizens Inquiry, drew together a wide range of participants who included representatives from significant businesses in the region, such as the airline FlyBE, the Eden Project and ITV Westcountry, as well as bankers, lawyers and members of pressure groups.

It might seem strange to gather such a variety of people to discuss broadband, which is often considered to be merely a faster way of using the internet. But the venue for the round table - the Met Office's new headquarters, relocated to Exeter from Bracknell in Berkshire - demonstrates the power and importance of information and communications technology (ICT). At the heart of the building, a triumph of modern environmental design, lies £30m worth of supercomputers, crunching raw data through fantastically detailed models. Yet the resulting weather forecasts would be useless if there were no way to distribute them - communications technology allows the predictions to be sent directly to customers, ensuring, among other things, that planes can take off around the world and that Sainsbury's stocks up on charcoal and ice cream in anticipation of a sizzling weekend.

The south-west offers a perfect case study in the possibilities, and challenges, of increasing the take-up of broadband in the UK from the current rate of 7 per cent to the point where it becomes an essential utility like water or electricity. England's largest region, the south-west suffers a clear digital divide between urban Swindon or Bristol, say, and predominantly rural Cornwall. It could be argued it is one of the regions that stand to benefit most from broadband, particularly through its tourism and leisure industries. However, there are significant obstacles. As Robin Barker of South-West Tourism pointed out, the region's diversity is supported by a large proportion of small businesses, and they tend to be the slowest to adopt information technology. Indeed, nearly 40 per cent of companies in the south-west have no internet connection, let alone broadband, and most of these have no form of ICT.

With this in mind, John Mills made clear how seriously the promotion of broadband is being taken - "one of the government's top priorities, period". Certainly, Defra envisages it will have a very important role for farmers. Mills described how the remote monitoring of livestock and landscape through broadband would be vital in the monumental task of assessing whether farmers were fulfilling the conditions to receive subsidies.

Nick Buckland of the South-West RDA said that broadband was also very high on the regional agenda. He described the special challenge facing the south-west, arguing that the big issue is not so much the availability of broadband (thanks to BT's large-scale enabling of exchanges) as it is levels of take-up and use. Other participants reiterated that the primary problem is not technological, but cultural. It was strongly felt that many people simply do not understand how broadband could improve their everyday lives, and that the task of convincing them is a hard nut to crack.

At the same time, there are still technical problems to overcome, especially in rural areas. Almost 3 per cent of the south-west's inhabitants - including at least two of the participants - will be unable to receive broadband through BT's exchanges. Finding ways to reach those living in remote areas is a significant challenge. Range is a big issue, admitted Lizzie Beesley from BT, which is working on increasing range to cover as many people as possible, and finding alternative technologies for the rest.

Brian Thornton of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce launched a spirited discussion of the benefits of broadband and why they are not being realised. Broadband cuts business costs, he said - one firm saved £9,000 per year by switching from three ISDN lines to one ASDL connection - and enhances profits and growth. He criticised BT for focusing on residential access, enabling the exchange for one of Exeter's satellite towns, where 18,000 of the 32,000 inhabitants are retired, before Exeter, with its 450 businesses. But he, too, admitted that the central problem was that the small businesses which dominate the south-west often have no understanding of ICT and are afraid to change their ways.

Thornton suggested that business groups "should adopt champions and role models" to evangelise among their peers, and that government and banks should make funds available for small businesses to equip themselves with the technology. Nick Capaldi of the Arts Council illustrated some of the problems that evangelists face. His organisation had launched a project with schools in Cornwall which it had been assured were broadband-ready; however, when the Arts Council arrived, it found that the school secretary used a fast connection but the classrooms were not connected. The project had to be cancelled.

The discussion then concentrated on the future, with the chair asking delegates for the one thing they believed should be done. The answer was a familiar one, especially to Tony Blair: "education, education, education". But it was also a matter of "communication, communication, communication", suggested Chris Hines of the Eden Project. Perhaps it is necessary to smuggle content on the merits of broadband into local news programmes (ITV has run a dozen stories in the past year) or soap operas. "Do we need a Max Clifford of broadband in the south-west?" Hines asked.

By the end of the discussion, described by the chair as "refreshingly untechnological", it was clear that everyone was excited about broadband's potential to improve lives in the south-west. The best way of communicating this excitement to the region as a whole is through partnerships, they concluded, especially with educational establishments - and as Lizzie Beesley said, the south-west is ahead of the game when it comes to partnerships.

Judging by the positive atmosphere around the table, Broadband Britain might just become a reality. It's no good going home saying "That was interesting", the participants agreed. It is vital to go away and do something about it.

Participants

Richard Ball Head of economy and tourism, Exeter City Council

Robin Barker Deputy chief executive, South-West Tourism

Lizzie Beesley Regional director for the south-west, BT

Nick Buckland Deputy chairman, South-West Regional Development Agency

Andy Button Divisional technology banking manager, HSBC (western & Wales)

Nick Capaldi Executive director, Arts Council of England, south-west

David Cornish Manager, Somerset Broadband Programme, Somerset County Council

Jim French Managing director, FlyBE

Mark Haskell Managing director, ITV Westcountry

Chris Hines Sustainability director, Eden Project

Peter Hollands Chief information officer, Eden Project

John Mills Director of rural policy, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Steve Molyneux Member, Broadband Stakeholder Group Executive

Edmund Probert Partner, Foot Anstey Sargent Solicitors

Humphrey Richards Senior agricultural manager for the south-west, Lloyds TSB

Steve Schlemmer Director of business services, University of Plymouth Enterprise

Brian Thornton Chairman, Exeter Chamber of Commerce

Charles Trotman Rural economy adviser, Country Land and Business Association

David Whiteley Chairman, Broadband4Devon

Mark Williams Chief executive, East Devon District Council