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12 July 2004updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

New Statesman/BT round table: Cardiff – From farce to treasure trove

G B Shaw dismissed communications technology as ridiculous, but today, the link between profitabilit

By Robert Colvile

In the very first issue of the New Statesman, published in 1913, George Bernard Shaw fulminated against what he called “the Marconi Farce”, the preposterous illusion that telecommunications technology would change our lives for the better. What would he have made of today’s drive to use broadband to build a better Britain and, even more intriguingly, what would he have made of the New Statesman‘s role in it? The latest round table on broadband, held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, was perhaps the most passionate yet, proving that almost a century later, issues of communications technology still command attention.

The conference was ably and forcefully chaired by Sarah Dickins, the presenter of BBC business programmes, who began by asking those attending to outline their vision for broadband. Many chose to respond in “the language of heaven” – translation services were available for non-Welsh-speakers. All shared an interest in how broadband could benefit Wales.

Michael Eaton, director of the Welsh Assembly Government’s Broadband Wales Unit, outlined the dramatic progress Wales has made. Two years ago, the Welsh enjoyed only 30 per cent availability of broadband. Indeed, Wales had always been a communications backwater, having 5 per cent of BT’s customers but generating only 1 per cent of its revenues. The WAG intervened to correct this “market failure” and, following developments in technology and attitude, Eaton was able to affirm that Wales now has 80 per cent broadband availability just from the expansion of BT services.

Dewi Lewis of Deudraeth Cyf, who has worked extensively to link up more isolated communities in West Wales and the Valleys, described the success of “digital village” schemes to link remote communities. In one year 400 people had joined the scheme. There were still major hurdles, however – 10 per cent of customers used 90 per cent of bandwidth (mainly young people downloading overnight) and the cost of bandwidth increased rapidly with distance.

He also expressed disappointment that the wider version of this, the scheme known as “eCommunities”, had failed to win matching funding from the government and had been abandoned. This was, according to Lewis and Daniel Meadows, a digital storyteller working with the BBC, a truly bottom-up, locally driven programme that deserved funding. Meadows called the cancellation “the single dullest act of politicians in Wales since the Assembly began”.

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Andrew Davies, the Welsh Minister for Economic Development, did not agree with this viewpoint and promised that similar schemes would be pursued actively. The minister’s pledge did little to calm resentment in the room, however, and a vigorous discussion flared up over the value of IT training, with Myfanwy Morgan of the North Wales Chamber of Commerce arguing that the schemes provided by Opportunity Wales and similar institutions were not what business needed.

In fact, there seemed to be widespread suspicion of government agencies and especially of local authorities. The chair wryly acknowledged that Wales was very good at “projects, initiatives and committees”. Eaton’s claim that local authorities are the best on-the-ground partners was particularly contentious: “people won’t go anywhere near” Gwynedd Council, pointed out Lewis.

Praise was universal for the use of libraries as internet hubs in communities, although there was a danger that without ongoing funding they could become what Andrew Green of the National Library of Wales called “a Cinderella service”. Martin Hessic of Immtech said that two terminals served 10,000 people in his area of Cardiff.

As Eaton suggested, however, the Welsh are occasionally better at bemoaning their failures than cheering their successes: “We always tend to beat ourselves up, no matter how brilliantly we’re doing.” He mentioned his own linking of schools in 22 local authorities (and the authorities themselves) to a high-bandwidth network that was the envy of colleagues in England.

Often the opportunities for enterprise did exist, but were insufficiently publicised. Ann Beynon of BT mentioned that the UK Treasury sponsors a scheme where employees can claim tax back for computers bought for domestic use – last Christmas 5,000 BT employees saved at least a quarter of the price of a new machine. Given the high percentage of public sector workers in Wales – nearly one-third – it was suggested that promotion of such a scheme could kick-start computer literacy across the country.

The second session of the day focused more strongly on the business world, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises. Susan Geary of Opportunity Wales laid out in the strongest possible terms the connections between use of information technology and profitability – the best argument for any business. Turnover for the 3,000 businesses working with her organisation (financed largely by the EU’s Objective One fund) had increased by £134m (up 14 per cent), and they had provided employment to 1,700 more people (up 9 per cent). Anecdotal evidence was even stronger – a company which had increased its export clients from ten to 300 in ten months, or one whose £3,500 investment in a broadband-powered website had brought £40,000 in orders.

Businesses were still reluctant to make the leap to new technologies, which in turn creates a need for training, partnership and peer advice to persuade them, but the controversy itself over how best to achieve this showed some of the problems. All those present were broadband evangelists, yet there was no consensus on the best way to bring businesses into the fold, or on who should fund such efforts. Angelo Conti of Swansea College pinpointed many of these difficulties when he described his institution’s problems in organising training on broadband for small businesses. Paradoxically, many of the problems involved in teaching people about broadband (little remote learning, the expense of materials) could be solved easily by adopting it.

Andrew Davies prompted another lively and often embittered discussion about the best way to make Wales “the first post-industrial nation” (in the 19th century, it was the first place on the planet where industrial workers outnumbered agricultural workers) without increasing the “digital gap” for remote or disadvantaged communities. Here, Davies’s chief criticism of the eCommunities project was that it was too top-down, precisely the opposite position from that of Lewis and Meadows.

The issue of infrastructure was also raised. Joss Goodall of WBNet cautioned about spending on technology that would soon be obsolete, while Graham MacDonald of Intel and BT’s Ann Beynon pointed out that it was easy to live in tomorrow’s world, rather than assessing the practical needs of the moment. The glossy Broadband Wales video that was shown only underlined the point – the magical possibilities portrayed (such as a mother video-conferencing with her daughter to fix a disastrous culinary situation) were barely available under current systems.

Andrew Green’s presentation on the marriage between culture and broadband pointed out (in Welsh) that “the internet was an English medium”, yet could be a treasure trove of Welsh- language material. The point was vigorously endorsed by Huw Jones of S4C and Robin Moore of the BBC, who dreamed of putting their archives online. Moore and Meadows also emphasised how the internet could become a means for people to create their own media and reject the one-way traffic of information from large, distant organisations. Meadows concluded with a rousing speech, urging the need to show the country that if we could “educate people as to what a computer could be”, there were no limits to what could be achieved.

Perhaps even George Bernard Shaw, that great curmudgeon, would have been moved to agree.

Participants

Ann Beynon National manager for Wales, BT
Angelo Conti Director of information learning technology development, Swansea College
Andrew Davies AM for Swansea West; Minister for Economic Development and Transport, Wales
Sarah Dickins (facilitator) Freelance broadcaster, BBC Wales
Michael Eaton Director, Broadband Wales Unit, Welsh Assembly Government
Susan Geary Business and customer services director, Opportunity Wales
Joss Goodall Chairman, WBNet Ltd
Andrew Green Librarian, National Library of Wales
Robin Gwynn Managing director, Swansea IteC
Rob Harrington Managing director, Kode Digital Ltd
Martin Hessic Multimedia and internet development officer, Immtech
Huw Jones Chief executive, S4C
Dewi Lewis Chairman, Deudraeth Cyf
Graham MacDonald Wireless standards and regulations manager, Intel
Marcella Maxwell Strategic economic policy manager, Cardiff County Council
Daniel Meadows Creative director, Digital Storytelling project, BBC Cymru
Robin Moore Executive producer, new media department, BBC Wales
Myfanwy Morgan Chairman, North Wales Chamber of Commerce
Richard Phillips Programme policy executive, Health-Enabling Technologies Branch, WAG
Patrick Sullivan Director of media technology programmes, Welsh Development Agency
Steve Thorpe Alliance director, Merlin project, National Assembly for Wales

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