Monday, 22 June 2009

Digital Britain

Last week the UK government launched a programme based on a report titled "Digital Britain". The aim is to develop the electronic infrastructure of the UK in the next decade or so. The news media have homed in on three proposals from the many (an executive summary of 30 pages seems to go against the desire to be concise). One relates to the funding of the national broadcasting services (BBC), one to the funding of the national broadband network (so every home can have 2MBps broadband by 2012) and the third to the desire to move many FM radio transmissions to Digital by 2015.

Let's look at the second and third from an OR perspective. The proposed funding scheme is a tax of £6 per year on each telephone landline in the UK. (It's not clear if this will be applied pro rata for businesses with internal exchanges.) The media have questioned why such a tax is needed. The government scenario is that the objective of extending the broadband service can only be done by government intervention. An alternative scenario is that commercial operators will develop the broadband provision in response to demand and their financial objectives. So far the operators have done very well without the need for taxes to help. And with the increasing convergence of computer technology and telephone technology, is the scenario seen by the government the correct one?

The third proposal is intriguing. Digital radio in the uK is often referred to as DAB-radio. The government argues that the cost of upgrading the FM network will be about £200million, and this is not worthwhile. Instead, they are looking to manufacturers to develop radios that cost less than £20. So, instead of spending £200million, consumers are expected to replace their radios. Currently, our home has 7 FM radios, plus one in the car. All of these have other functions -- a radio alarm, radios with CD players, an MP3 player with FM radio. So, to replace these will cost rather more than £20 each; unlike TV sets which often have a limited life, radios go on and on and on. Of our 7 household radios, I expect 5 or 6 to be in working order in 2015. Is the scenario of scrapping them a good one? I don't think so.

Finally, the report was launched with a triumphant "We want the UK to be the best in Europe or the world". What about helping other countries to develop in their use of technology? Do we selfishly optimise our bit of the system, or do we think globally and optimise the whole? I favour thinking globally, even if it means that the UK infrastructure is not quite the best in the world!

No comments: