Last night I spoke at the launch of Demos’ latest report ‘The Politics of Broadband’. The authors have been bold in their conclusions (and perhaps incautious in their choice of sponsor) but we should expect that of a Think Tank whose average age seems to be about 19 (I make this observation because I am old and bitter). They’ve absorbed all the latest thinking from the US – Lessig, Open Spectrum, the ‘Innovation Commons’ and they want Government to get on and break up BT to dissolve the innovation log jam and get broadband roll-out moving. From the platform, Stephen Timms was nicer about this idea than I’d expected of the ecommerce minister (but it’s still a ‘no’) and Graham Wallace, who runs Cable & Wireless (the incautiously chosen sponsor), made a good case for the break-up (but then he would, wouldn’t he).
From the floor, Clare Spottiswoode, who, in an earlier life, split up Gas supply for the last Tory Government, couldn’t understand why it would be any more complicated to split up BT than British Gas and pointed to the wave of innovation and price cuts that followed that break-up. Wallace went further and argued that it would be ‘easy’ to split up the giant incumbent because of the elaborate system of interconnect agreements already in place at the telephone exchanges.
There was no consensus. Robin Mansell, Professor of New Media & The Internet at the LSE, was against – too complicated and disruptive by far. The most cogent argument against came from Claire Enders: the capital markets will have the casting vote, since they’ll have to fund the break-up, and they’re still on strike so we might as well forget it. I think it’s unwise to bet on apocalyptic infrastructural change to help us get Broadband Britain rolling while the tech and comms economy is still deep frozen. We’re going to need to be more tactical and less scornful of ‘incremental change’.