Sailing into the future

New Statesman/BT round table - Manchester and the north-west are full of paradoxes. The city is at t

The Lowry arts and entertainment centre is a shining example of the future of modern Salford. A fitting venue for the New Statesman/BT round table on broadband in the north-west, the Lowry stands alongside other impressive buildings - such as the Imperial War Museum North - on Salford Quays, a glimmering landscape of glass, metal and hope. Gone are the warehouses and working docks that were once the heart of the area's economy, and in their place is the high-tech Digital World Centre.

Yet this vision only highlights what Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, called "the paradoxes of Manchester and the north-west". The city has the only internet exchange outside London, yet the region is the third poorest in the UK. In the gross value added rankings - the measurement of productivity that gauges the performance of sectors and economies - the north- west ranks third out of the nine English regions; yet in the rankings per head, the region drops to sixth place. Manchester has the largest concentration of employment in the media and creative industries outside London, yet it has a low busi- ness survival rate.

The city is at the leading edge of technological advances, keeping up with the rest of Europe and sailing into the digital era, but as Leese explained, there are pockets within Manchester that are at serious risk of being left behind. "The problem used to be unemployment," he said, "but now it is worklessness. There is economic inactivity, and a skills mismatch."

Emphasising that cities are the main drivers for regional economies, Leese argued that connectivity between cities and surrounding areas, as well as within cities, is a major priority in growing the economy and maximising the benefits for the local population.

Manchester has already had a degree of success in this. The Eastserve initiative has helped to give 3,000 homes in the east of the city basic internet connections, training and support. And the same initiative has used wireless technology to connect 800 homes to the internet. Leese also pointed to the success of internet-enabled computers in Manchester libraries. "There has been an increase in users in libraries where there are computers, whereas user numbers in traditional, book-only libraries remain the same," he said.

However, take-up of broadband in the area remains low, and Leese suggested that the successful initiatives needed to be rolled out in order to change that. "Given our ambition to be number one, there is much to be done," he said.

The poor adoption of technology in the north-west comes down to a number of factors. Confusion over pricing, providers and benefits all play a role. More importantly, however, a third of the population no longer has a landline and therefore has no credit rating to secure the service.

Such a large obstacle prompted Spencer Neal, publisher of the New Statesman, to ask whether broadband is a public utility or a private luxury. "Are we saying that connectivity is part of civil society? If it is a utility, then the digital divide is indefensible," he said.

"Broadband is a requirement," said Chris Newby, president of the Knowledge Society Forum - TeleCities. "It's about culture, not technology." Other participants at the round table agreed and pointed out that such a cultural change had taken place in the mobile phone market over the past three years. "Poor people now have mobile phones," added Leese. "They just use pay-as-you-go so that they don't have to worry about line rental agreements."

The idea of the prepay meter to help promote the take-up of technology made Peter Connor, BT's north-west regional manager, wonder whether there should be a universal broadband requirement, similar to the telephone service. As he pointed out, public phone boxes were subsidised services.

Barry Forde, deputy director of information systems services at Lancaster University, agreed that basic broadband was a utility. "What is lacking are compelling applications, media-rich products," he said. TeleCities, an organisation made up of 140 European cities which aims to promote e-citizenship at local level, is driving change in this area. Liverpool, in preparation for being European Capital of Culture in 2008, has installed ten interactive kiosks. These allow tourists to send free e-mails, take a self-portrait and browse through a virtual tour of Liverpool.

Newby praised the impressive speed of change within Liverpool City Council. "Five years ago, there were three computers in social services. Staff still worked from ledgers," he said. "Now the council has the teleworker project, which gives council employees the opportunity to work from home." But he also admitted that things were still not moving fast enough.

Philip Dewhurst, group director of corporate affairs at BNFL, picked up on how home-working could ease congestion and reduce the environmental impact of commuting. "We have 1,000 employees belting up the M6 every day," he said. "Home-working could definitely have an impact on them."

But Angie Robinson, chief executive of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, argued that home-working was impractical for many companies. "We've got to get real," she said. "Not everyone can do that, and it's not going to solve congestion." Most businesses work nine to five, she said, and "senior managers complain when they call someone who works from home and they say they can't talk because they are just changing a nappy".

Ben Hatton, managing director of Rippleffect, an online solutions agency, insisted that broadband take-up had to be product-led. "It has got to be simple, like the packages Sky offers, such as Sky Digital and Sky Plus, so people know what they are getting." Hatton confirmed that many businesses are nervous about new technology and have to go through hand-holding exercises to get to grips with the basics. "We are moving too fast for our society and there is too much jargon," he argued. Robinson agreed: "Most people find a PowerPoint presentation difficult. We need a whole endemic process to get people to become confident about technology - to transform business practice," she said.

According to Robinson, broadband, for most businesses, is about fast internet access and download speeds. She believes other broadband services, such as BT Broadband Office, should be promoted to help firms understand what technology can offer them now and in the future. "The north-west is about small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs], not corporates. We need to get the right messages out to them," she said. She firmly disagreed with the suggestion that SMEs should be compelled to adopt broadband through legislation that, for example, might require audits to be filed digitally. "Many SMEs still keep receipts and invoices and hand them over to their accountants at the end of the year, and they are already overregulated," Robinson said.

So it seems that the key to the north-west's technological revolution lies in education, simplification and good applications. The region has time to work out solutions. As Hatton said: "We don't need broadband to live . . . yet."

For more, visit www.newstatesman.com/considerthis

Participants

Trevor Green (Chair) Presenter and journalist, Sky News and Granada TV
Keith Barnes Regional director, Government Office for the North-west
Peter Connor North-west regional manager, BT
Brian Crouch North-west regional director, BT
Philip Dewhurst Group director of corporate affairs, BNFL
Barry Forde Deputy director of information systems, Lancaster University
Ben Hatton Managing director, Rippleffect
David Higham Director of business, Government Office for the North-West
Richard Leese Leader, Manchester City Council
Hugh Logan Managing director, Your Communications
Geoff Muirhead Group chief executive, Manchester Airports Group
Spencer Neal Publisher, New Statesman
Chris Newby President, Knowledge Society Forum - TeleCities
John O'Brien Regional director, Business in the Community
Gerry Pennell ICT director, Co-operative Financial Services Ltd
Angie Robinson Chief executive, Manchester Chamber of Commerce
Geoffrey Robinson Chairman, New Statesman
Allison Seidlar Head of broadband marketing, BT Wholesale
Peter White Director of strategy, North-west Development Agency