The West Midlands New Statesman/BT round table on broadband opened in a self-congratulatory mood. The area, led by the regional development body Advantage West Midlands (AWM), has become the third best connected region in England, after London and the south-east. Already at the centre of the nation's road, rail and canal networks, it will have 99.79 per cent Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) availability by the summer of 2005 and was the site (in Coventry) of BT's initial broadband trials.
To illustrate the challenges still ahead, Frank Mills, BT's regional director for the West Midlands, pointed out that the round-table venue - the four-year-old Mailbox leisure complex, with its view over a city centre that seems to be one huge building site - is just a mile from one of Birmingham's most deprived areas. "They've had broadband availability for years," he remarked - not that there's been much take-up. Even as the region looks set to get small businesses and tourist destinations linked up to high-speed networks, it must figure out a way to keep significant sections of the population from being left behind.
These problems and others were tackled by local public and private sector leaders in one of the most robust debates of the series so far. The participants made it clear that the West Midlands is barely keeping up with 21st- century technological advances. Hospitals in Boston, Massachusetts, and schools in the US south-west are doing things with ICT that are hardly dreamt of in this country, said Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, director of the Warwick University Manufacturing Group. Mills said that a DTI trip to Singapore had revealed a world where Wi-Fi, WiMax, 3G, SDSL and other high-speed communications technologies are omnipresent and all work together. "That's where we need to get to," he said. Indeed, while there was all the usual discussion of broadband's benefits - better work-life balance, easier access to health services, more efficient small businesses - the debate kept returning to the themes of necessity and fear.
Small businesses need to understand that unless they embrace the broadband revolution they face destruction, said Andrew Sparrow, founder of the specialist internet law firm Lecote Solicitors. He suggested that the most effective publicity campaign to get small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on board would focus on "the fear factor". "Unless they embrace this technology, and think of different ways to operate which the technology makes possible, they may not be in business in ten years' time," Sparrow maintained, providing as an example the way the internet has played havoc with the business models of booksellers and record companies.
Helen Foster, chief executive of the West Midlands Networking Company, disagreed. Such a message, she said, would just scare small businesses off. "They'd think: if all this disruptive change is coming along, I'd better not do anything right now," she claimed.
For some smaller businesses, the advantages of broadband are clear-cut and need only to be communicated effectively.
This is the case for the tourism industry, where Heart of England Tourism is aiming to get a wide variety of organisations on to a common platform called EnglandNet by April of next year, as Sam Warnock, head of regional communications for the tourism organisation, explained.
Once stately homes and bed-and-breakfasts and the like are able to exchange data with central websites such as www.visitheartofengland.com, the next step is online booking. For many firms, getting into online trading would allow them to compete with large corporations for public sector contracts.
"Small enterprises could be a part of the huge public procurement expenditure," said AWM's chief executive, John Edwards.
For other companies, there might currently not be such obvious benefits - but it's just a matter of time. "Something is going to happen that will make broadband relevant to many businesses. Nobody knows what that will be, but it is coming," said Sparrow. If companies are on board when the next wave comes, they have a "huge opportunity for wealth creation"; otherwise they are more likely to go under. And unlike the situation two years ago, most firms that want broadband can now get it, although they are often unaware of this - according to Allison Seidlar, head of broadband marketing for BT Wholesale.
One in ten West Midlands electoral wards are among the 10 per cent most deprived in England, making the question of the "digital divide" highly relevant. Broadband prices have plummeted in recent months, but are still high enough to put it out of reach for many - and prices aren't going to drop further without government and business support, said Mills.
The DTI has long had a policy against subsidies, but Jacqui Smith, minister for industry and the regions, indicated that this could change. Schools and colleges are faring surprisingly well, with high-speed connections giving them access to specialist teaching resources from other schools and universities. Helen Foster's organisation operates the Regional Network in the West Midlands, which provides broadband infrastructure to local authorities, universities and colleges, and she was keen to point out that such teaching projects wouldn't have been possible without collaboration among separate networks and organisations.
In Sandwell, in the Black Country, a highly deprived area with a large population of political refugees, "extended schools" are being used as resource centres to reach out to adults, said Nigel Summers, chief executive of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council. "We have wide access to broadband, and if take-up is low, it is because of the nature of the community we are serving," Summers commented. "That makes the role of schools extremely important." Bob Michaelson, regional director of the West Midlands Institute of Directors, added that "the biggest issue isn't the children; it's the parents".
There was disagreement on exactly how a digitally inclusive society might look. While Michaelson spoke of connected schools, libraries and public kiosks, Lord Bhattacharyya argued that broadband has to be "pervasive": whether in the home or in your pocket - perhaps via set-top boxes on televisions.
Patrick Smith, IBM's client director for local and regional government in England and Wales, mentioned a deprived housing estate where there's wide usage of an inexpensive set-top box. Summers said it's "a myth" that you can't put free kit into people's houses, using the example of a simple device that allows the elderly living on their own to videoconference with their children. "Today we're living hectic lives, spread out over long distances, and sometimes the elderly can be forgotten in that," Summers said.
In discussions of broadband, it is often said that applications, not technology, are the important thing - and the NHS is a perfect example of this, argued Charles Goody, chairman of the West Midlands South Strategic Health Authority. ICT can be used to make healthcare more effective, cost-efficient and inclusive by, for starters, getting patient information "to the right place at the right time". Today, a startling 40 per cent of patients are treated without any information at all, and the proliferation of specialist treatment centres is making it ever more complicated to shift information around. Most digital records are in GPs' systems, with hospitals still mired in paper. Modern databases and thousands of broadband links will go a long way towards improving the situation. Telemedicine can make treatment more accessible, allowing people to cut out the GP visit altogether. Patients with heart problems can wear a blood pressure monitor that contacts a nurse when needed. Interactive TV can make the new treatment methods accessible for the technophobic.
If there is a dark side, said Goody, it is that "with all this technology you can lose personal contact". But the discussion finished with a sense that broadband has simply become a necessity. As the chairman, John James, said: "The question is, if we don't get broadband take-up, will we be worse off? And the answer is, we undoubtedly will be."
John James (chair) Chair, South Birmingham College
Professor Lord Bhattacharyya Director, Warwick University Manufacturing Group
John Edwards Chief executive, Advantage West Midlands
Helen Foster Chief executive, West Midlands Networking Company
Charles Goody Chair, West Midlands South Strategic Health Authority
Stephen Griggs Head of audit for the Midlands, Deloitte
Martin Male Head of ICT, Advantage West Midlands
Bob Michaelson Regional director, Institute of Directors, West Midlands
Frank Mills Regional director, BT
Spencer Neal Publisher, New Statesman
Geoffrey Robinson MP, Coventry North-west
Allison Seidlar Head of broadband marketing, BT Wholesale
Jacqui Smith Minister for industry and the regions
Patrick Smith Client director for local and regional government in England and Wales, IBM
Andrew Sparrow Founder, Lecote Solicitors
Nigel Summers Chief executive, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council
Sam Warnock Head of regional communications, Heart of England Tourist Board