The people vs pipes debate kicks off again

As my first blog of 2013, I wanted to wish Happy New Year to you all. 2012 was a fantastic year for me personally, and for Online Centres Foundation as an organisation, but of course I’m confident that 2013 will be even better.

To kick off the year, on Tuesday the Policy Exchange released a report called The Superfast and the Furious, which addresses how the government should approach broadband policy in the future.

The 87-page report is heavy reading for the first full week back of the year, but if you’re interested in the people vs pipes debate it’s definitely worth taking a look.

The report argues that, rather than focussing on the race to get superfast fixed broadband everywhere, from 2015 the government should focus on helping the 10.8 million people who are not online, and support small business to make more of what the internet can offer.

Other points that the report mentions are:

  • Only a third of people are confident that they could choose the best broadband deal for their household, and people are as bothered about price and reliability in their connection as they are about speed.
  • Two thirds of people think basic broadband for the whole country is more important than chasing very fast broadband speeds in some areas.
  • People are divided on whether it is important to pursue fast connectivity, even if it means more masts and street cabinets, or to preserve neighbourhoods and the environment, even if it constrains speeds.

I’ve always been a ‘people’ over a ‘pipes’ person. Of course, we need the infrastructure,  but without investing in digital skills we’re actively excluding a whole group of people who just don’t have the confidence to use computers and the internet. The fact that the report focuses on how much people are struggling to find the right broadband deal for them shows just how exclusive the online world can feel to those who aren’t part of it. I’m all for fast broadband – and I reap the rewards of it myself at home  – but I know it’s not the answer in itself, and it needs to be accompanied by investment that will help people use everything the new pipes can bring.

The debate is one that I’m sure will continue to rage, but it’s great to see 2013 kicking off with a point to the people. You can read the report here, and do let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “The people vs pipes debate kicks off again

  1. The mere fact people can’t decide which package and value for money is because the pipes aren’t there and they are trying to get connectivity from thin copper that can’t deliver it. You cannot solve their problems by dragging them into online centres to tick your boxes that they understand how to email using your service or use a word processor. There is no point whatsoever in trying to help our people until they have access to a fit for purpose service, and many still don’t, and still won’t in 2015. The two thirds who think getting a decent connection to all are the people who are either without it themselves or who can’t contact friends and family because their connections are so bad. I don’t think you realise just how bad it is because your connection is good Helen.Those who do have good enough connections end up throttled and capped because they go for cheap tarifs – so they go slow and get fed up too. The networks can’t cope with what folk are trying to do now, so we can’t innovate and grow until the pipes are there. I wouldn’t brag about being a ‘people over pipes’ person if I were you. It shows how misled you are about what is reality out there for millions. If the service worked and was ubiquitous people would use it. We didn’t have to drag people to showrooms to sell television or radio to them. Nor should we have to do it for the internet. If it worked easily and well folk would use it. Concentrate on getting the pipes if you want to help the people.chris.

  2. I completely appreciate where you’re coming from and we’re both ultimately after the same thing – a fully connected nation. Digital exclusion is about a number of things – including access and skills – so we need to address them both. But with Universal Credit fast approaching – and more government services moving online – people simply won’t be able to avoid using the internet and so they will need support to improve their skills. We need to do this as well as addressing the need for better broadband connections for everyone.

  3. Some statistics on the composition of the 10.8 million would help the debate. I believe a large portion of them will live in locations with adequate broadband connections so that group needs a "people" approach. Places like Glasgow with low takeup are more likely to have an eduction / motivation / economic problem than an availability problem.Does this data exist ?Virgin Media have fast connections with no choice of provider to worry about that serve >40% of the population, it would be interesting to know how many off-line people fall inside their footprint (for example).

  4. Hi Phil, thanks for your comment. Ofcom have put together an interactive map that shows take-up of broadband which you can take a look at here – which shows availability of superfast broadband and take-up, and it echoes your point – in Glasgow for example, superfast broadband availability is 62.4% but take-up overall is only 63.7% – lower than a number of other big cities. It’s definitely something that needs looking into further though to ensure we can find the right motivation for the right people.

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