When it comes to national broadband networks, governments and their technical advisors often concentrate on setting up the physical infrastructure and think their job is done, says Tim Williams, author of a report recounting the UK experience of community use of broadband.
“This is the most important thing I discovered [when studying digitally enriched societies] in the UK – that broadband is not simply a computer thing and it’s not an end in itself; it is a means of furthering national objectives, in the economy, health, education, the environment, transport, community development and regional vitality.”
Williams, who presented his report, Connecting Communities at a TUANZ event earlier this month, strongly supports public-private partnerships to encourage productive and imaginative use of broadband. Government, both national and local, must play a role in exploring and stimulating how broadband access can cater for social needs, he says. This includes improvement to communication between government and people and their participation in democracy.
The report is clearly based on his UK experience, but he has injected a good deal of locally relevant statistics and other content, such as considering how to cater for the specific needs of Maori communities.
Computerworld asked Williams whether he had spoken with ICT Minister Steven Joyce. No, he said, though he had sent him a copy of the report.
“I’ve heard Mr Joyce has the reputation of being a self-consciously proud builder; he’s the chief executive of a building project. I worry he might think of having a strategy about how you incorporate thinking about end uses and public services transformation as a bit soft, as not what government should do. I think the opposite.”
Every government agency should be thinking of three or four straightforward ways of providing services digitally for citizens and communicating with them “and the steer for that should come from central government,” he says.
Williams expresses doubt of the strategy of having separate projects for UFB and RBI, something he says he has seen done nowhere else in the world. He compared it to bringing up twins; a parent has to try hard to be seen not to favour one or the other.
He points out in his report that one effect of broadband networking as managed in the UK has been a revitalising of rural areas, as former urbanites realise that with broadband services they can move to the country and continue their work and lifestyle.
Told his report is reminiscent in several respects of the former Labour-led government’s Digital Strategy, Williams says “Yes, I purposely avoided reading that document until after I’d completed my report, so no-one could say I’d been influenced by it.”
Among the most striking parallels is the reproduction of a chart from the Digital Birmingham project in the English Midlands, which identifies a similar “three Cs” - connectivity, content and [user] capability – to those identified in the first version of the Digital Strategy. That document referred to connection, content and [user] confidence. Collaboration was added in version 2.0 of the strategy.
The Labour strategy proposed eight government-assisted regional “hubs” to stimulate public interest in and discussion of broadband’s potential uses.