NS/BT round table - Big dreams at the click of a mouse

The East Midlands wants to become one of the top regional economies in Europe. Its ambition is achie

The East Midlands thinks big. It wants nothing less than to join London and the south-east as one of the 20 top regional economies in Europe. It wants to exploit its proximity to the south-east and its communications infrastructure to transform itself into a high-tech powerhouse - the "Silicon Peaks" perhaps. Business, government and public sector leaders from the region took part in the latest New Statesman/BT round table on broadband, and agreed that information and communications technology (ICT) is crucial to achieving these big plans.

The area has its work cut out. Leicester and Nottingham may be ticking over reasonably well as economic engines go - the round-table venue, Leicester's two-year-old, £35m Walkers Stadium, with its view across busy construction sites, was a perfect example. But other regional cities aren't performing so well, and much of the area's economy is characterised by lower-skilled manufacturing jobs, inner-city deprivation and remote rural communities. People are more likely than the English average to be employed in agriculture, manufacturing and construction; they're less likely to have jobs in communications and finance. Only 3.5 per cent of the workforce is employed in high-tech services. Yes, the East Midlands may well become the envy of Europe - but it could also sink into a vicious cycle of low wages, poor skills and vulnerability to overseas competition.

Local leaders see broadband as a key technology in ensuring the more positive outcome. Basic broadband connections are soon to be more or less universally available - BT currently covers 93.6 per cent of homes and businesses and will have 99.8 per cent covered by next July, while the Remote Area BroadBand Inclusion Trial (Rabbit) is using wireless technology to reach areas such as the Peak District. Theoretically, it's just a matter of getting businesses, consumers and the public sector on board. But the situation isn't as clear-cut as it sounds.

For one thing, availability is still far from adequate, despite BT's sunny figures. Gareth Braithwaite, group IT director for the construction giant Wilson Bowden, compared his difficulties in getting ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) in Ibstock, near Leicester, where Wilson Bowden is based, to the task of running broadband to Everest Base Camp. "Ibstock got it first, but it was close. We won because Ibstock had electricity," he said.

Businesses need SDSL (Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line), allowing them to upload as quickly as they can download, said Bryan Carr, the East Midlands Development Agency's lead board member on ICT issues. However, SDSL connections aren't yet widely available. East Midlands schools are now being wired for two megabit per second (mbit/s) symmetric connections, said Mike Kendall, head of learning and ICT for Northamptonshire County Council, and executive director for the regional broadband consortia.

Most participants agreed - to applause from Mike O'Brien, minister of state at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) - that availability is just a matter of time. Even so, 28 per cent of East Midlands small and medium enterprises don't have external e-mail and half are still without a website, indicating a certain scepticism towards ICT.

This explains why all participants stressed a need for cultural change. Broadband isn't simply about people doing more efficiently what they were doing before; it requires people to alter the way they live and work. This partly comes down to training. Ian Griffiths, director of communications and IT at Nottingham Trent University, spoke of the university's successful ICT training programme, where the most outstanding employees were paid to train their peers. "Certain people began to shine, and when they shone, they were used as a trainer," Griffiths said. He suggested a similar technique could be used to get small businesses up to speed.

Martin Traynor, director of the Leicestershire Chamber of Commerce, brought up the example of the many small businesses run by owner-managers who are over the age of 45 and "aren't ICT-literate by any stretch of the imagination". Service providers might fit them with broadband and provide a PC, but this ignores the basic literacy gap. Dick Peters, senior partner in Nottingham for Deloitte & Touche, said he'd come across plenty of such illiteracy and "fear" of computers. Traynor suggested a sort of "ICT plumber" could be on hand to train users in the basics and also attend to any problems.

Carr suggested appealing to the "arrogance" of small businessmen, whom he characterised as "entrepreneurs driven by peer pressure" - provide them with case studies of how their rivals are using broadband and they will have all the motivation they need. If all else fails, larger companies might be forced to train business partners themselves, said Eleanor Byram, project manager at e-skills UK. She cited the recent case of a company that switched to online trading, only to find it had to invest in bringing all of its suppliers up to speed.

For the NHS, which is in the midst of a historic ICT upgrade programme, training will mean a huge expenditure of public funds. The procurement cost for ICT modernisation has been set at £6.2bn over ten years, and for every pound spent on technology, regional bodies are likely to spend an equivalent sum on services around implementation, including training, said David Marsden, chief information officer for the Strategic Health Authorities East Midlands.

Introducing digital X-rays and patient records that fly instantly from one part of the country to another will mean big changes in the way NHS staff work. "The change is 10 per cent technological and 90 per cent cultural within the NHS," Marsden said - and unfortunately such cultural shifts could take a while because of the federal organisation of the NHS. Doctors might adopt new technology all the time, but rarely outside the surgery. Still, Marsden was confident that the NHS would integrate new communications systems "just as it did with PET scans and CAT scans".

Businesses may face some adjustments even if they have nothing to do with the internet. Braithwaite said that since becoming addicted to home broadband services such as online radio and e-commerce, he had begun shopping in Leicester less frequently - perhaps a sign of things to come. Services are all-important, the participants agreed. Braithwaite proved this by holding up an unremarkable ADSL microfilter: "This is what broadband looks like. Broadband isn't exciting, it's the services that run on it that are exciting," he said.

The most encouraging aspect of the discussion touched on the way those services are already being taken on board. Wilson Bowden has slashed telecoms costs by using Internet Protocol telephony, and relies on broadband to transmit gigantic graphics files to and from sites. On the back end, the company has streamlined its dealings with suppliers - for this purpose, the construction industry created a common document language called eBuild-XML, which is now the basis for the e-Government Interoperability Framework, Braithwaite said.

By the end of this year, the East Midlands Broadband Consortium will have linked more than 1,000 schools into a "learning community", complete with websites, secure e-mail and access to a central server farm, said Kendall. "We realised there's not much point in connecting schools to the internet, you really want to connect them to each other," he said. "When you connect schools together, they can do things they would never have thought of before."

Universities have been in the game longer, and are now so well connected they may actually be hurting broadband uptake, said Griffiths - it's so convenient to use broadband in colleges that people see no need for a home connection. East Midlands higher education and further education have had an aggregated ICT procurement system since 1995. Adit, set up by the DTI and regional development agencies to aggregate public sector procurement of broadband and network-related services, is now carrying this idea forward. The speed of technological change might present a challenge, but for the East Midlands to realise its great ambitions, this must be met.

Participants

Kevin Ashford (chair) Co-presenter, Central News in the East Midlands

John Armley Chief executive, Adit East Midlands

Gareth Braithwaite Group IT director, Wilson Bowden

Eleanor Byram Project manager, e-skills UK

Bryan Carr Non-executive board member, East Midlands Development Agency

Ian Griffiths Director of communications and IT, Nottingham Trent University

Mike Kendall Head of learning and ICT, Northamptonshire County Council

David Marsden Chief information officer, Strategic Health Authorities East Midlands

Jon McLeod Board member, East Midlands Development Agency

Mick Mcloughlin East Midlands regional director, BT

Spencer Neal Publisher, New Statesman

Mike O'Brien Minister of state, Department of Trade and Industry

Dick Peters Senior partner, Deloitte & Touche

Geoffrey Robinson Chairman, New Statesman

Alan Srbljanin ICT policy adviser, East Midlands Development Agency

Martin Traynor Director, East Midlands Chambers of Commerce

David Weymouth Chief information officer, Barclays