When Christa Ackroyd was asked to chair the latest in a series of round-table debates on broadband, she wasn't sure if she even used it. Her husband, an accountant, had to tell her that, finding it to be the most economical option for their needs, he had connected them some time ago. Ackroyd had obviously taken her fast research for granted and forgotten the snail-like pace of her dial-up days. Without knowing it, she was among the 15 per cent of internet users in Britain to have taken up broadband. But where does that leave the other 85 per cent? If broadband speeds up access to information, making our lives easier, what are we waiting for?
In the ninth regional round table hosted by the New Statesman, in association with BT, representatives from government, education and business gathered at Leeds University to discuss what broadband means for the development of Yorkshire and the Humber, and how take-up can be improved.
It seemed that Ackroyd was not alone in her ignorance. "I don't know what I'm talking about either," admitted Alun Michael, the minister for rural affairs. "I wonder why you've invited me?" None the less, he was sure that the foot-and-mouth crisis which devastated the area three years ago had been a major factor in making rural communities, at least, turn towards technology.
The crisis showed that the rural economy had changed: farming had become less important and tourism had become a major source of revenue. "We even discovered that maggot rearing was a £250,000-a-week industry," Michael said. Suddenly, people had to work together, and telephone conferencing and e-mailing were the fastest ways. It quickly became apparent that the internet, which at that time was broadcasting negative images of the countryside, could be exploited as a marketing tool for the future.
"People don't understand how disadvantaged they are until they see what they're missing," Michael continued. "That's the opportunity for broadband, to confront social exclusion." But John Moore of North Yorkshire County Council felt that tackling areas of extreme social disadvantage should be the priority. "In parts of North Yorkshire, you can't even use a mobile phone," he said.
When asked if broadband should be treated as a utility rather than a luxury, Michael was clear. He said that utilities were an excellent example of municipal co-operation, just what was needed to increase confidence in broadband. But he stressed that, for this to happen, the leaders of IT needed to assume that everyone was like him and Ackroyd, and translate into simple English what it was all about.
Sue Mould, joint regional manager for BT, agreed that broadband networks are as important as standard utilities, but she was frustrated by the emphasis on the "micro" picture. "We need to look globally, at the importance of the international dimension for regional business," she said.
Her concerns were echoed by BT's Lynda Shillaw. "Villages in India have the same issues about access to technology as we do in rural Yorkshire," she said, "but they are finding ways of doing it, using the technology to educate." This, she explained, drives communities together and fosters business enterprise.
John Napier, chairman of the water company Kelda, suggested that there was a correlation between low broadband take-up and educational underachievement in Yorkshire. He put that down partly to access in the area, which is less than 100 per cent, but also to a failure to market the product's educational use.
All the participants agreed that a major problem in improving broadband take-up was getting the right information to people. David Andrews, chief executive of the Yorkshire Tourist Board, believed it was a case of taking the training to those who needed it. He enthused about what the region had to offer visitors, but admitted that people in the travel industry had to be shown the real benefits - an increase in bookings. "There's a lot of hand-holding, and it's very expensive, but it's the only way to educate people," he said. Spencer Neal, the New Statesman's publisher, also felt that mindsets had to change. To gasps of disbelief, he recounted a conversation in which a "government department leader and a big call-centre employer" had agreed that "broadband was brilliant, but you wouldn't want it for everyone". Neal believed that the key to making it universal was keeping it simple.
"Most internet companies are incapable of articulating their propositions to customers and keeping the whole thing simple," claimed Ajaz Ahmed, co-founder of the internet service provider Freeserve and now chief executive of Callserve. People feared that the dotcom revolution would make traditional businesses obsolete, he said, but those industries were still here. "We were promised internet access so fast that by now we should all be acting like the crew of the starship Enterprise, but compared to France and South Korea, our broadband speeds are still laughably slow." Ahmed explained that we will be stuck until there is an incentive for BT to update its network and offer us a high-speed service at an affordable cost. He believed that there was an important role for the government in making wireless internet "widely available" so that areas were not at the mercy of BT.
Phil Coppard of Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council was also convinced that public intervention was needed to prevent Yorkshire falling behind. He was unimpressed by BT's performance so far - it had, he said, "acted as a monopoly and sought to protect that monopoly". He urged people to stop feeling grateful for what they had. "We need bandwidths of ten megabytes or more to develop the services we are capable of."
"I wish we could move away from infrastructure," said Mould. She emphasised that BT had done much to provide 100 per cent coverage in Yorkshire, and to promote the benefits of broadband. "The network is there, but there's a lot that public and private organisations can do to help stimulate demand in their own communities," she said.
Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, has demonstrated that the real and perceived problems of broadband delivery in rural areas can be overcome. The agency's Business Inside programme provided satellite broadband to rural businesses across the county, while a grant scheme enables communities to buy their own fast wireless network solutions.
Toby Hyam, chief executive of the Media Centre Network, said the need for better access in these communities was partly down to the increase in flexible working arrangements in the region. Wetherby, near Leeds, is the top ward in the country for flexible working, and seven out of the top ten wards are in Yorkshire and Humber. The demands made by companies are changing, and people want to be in well-connected locations. Hyam's 16-year-old son looks for a wireless hot spot on his way to school in York to prepare for his day. If children are thinking like that, shouldn't policy-makers, too? Hyam also wondered if greater take-up of broadband would finally spell the end of the M62 nightmare.
"The technology is there," stressed Shillaw. "You just need a master plan." The technology was certainly not there for Steven Brown, managing director of the Press Association. Although he extolled the virtues of PA's new packages of image and text, the round-table participants were unable to see them because he couldn't get the projector to work. Yet one thing was clear: a master plan was lacking, and not just one. As Moore rightly explained: "Like everything else, there is not one solution, because there is not one problem."
Christa Ackroyd (chair) Co-presenter, BBC Leeds
Ajaz Ahmed Chief executive, Callserve
Mohammed Ali Chief executive, QED UK
David Andrews Chief executive, Yorkshire Tourist Board
Steven Brown Managing director, Press Association
Phil Coppard Chief executive, Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council
Felicity Everiss Regional director, Government Office, Yorkshire and Humber
Jim Farmery Head of technology infrastructure, Yorkshire Forward
Trevor Higgins Joint regional manager, BT
Toby Hyam Chief executive, Media Centre Network
Gary Keown BBC Charter Review Panel
Simon Lee Vice-chancellor, Leeds Metropolitan University
Alun Michael Minister for rural affairs, Defra
John Moore Finance director, North Yorkshire County Council
Sue Mould Joint regional manager, BT
John Napier Chairman, Kelda Group plc
Spencer Neal Publisher, New Statesman
Gareth Owens Chief executive, Go Broadband
Allison Seidlar Group director, markets, BT Wholesale
Lynda Shillaw Group director, property, BT
John Spencer Managing editor, Press Association