Digital Britain

Published in Shetland Life, August 2009

This month’s column is about news that will happen, rather than what is or was happening. A pre-emptive strike, if you will.

In October 2008, Lord Carter, minister for communications, technology and broadcasting, embarked on a major research project dubbed Digital Britain. The government intended the recommendations would form the basis of UK policy to make the most of new media and communication technologies. The findings were released on the 16th of June in the form of several rather weighty tomes covering an extensive swathe of technologies and economics.

Amongst the plethora of findings in the 240-page document are 77 proposals including plans to shake up public service TV broadcasting and funding models; initiatives to ensure universal access to broadband across the whole UK by 2012; recommendations for a 50p a month levy on all land lines to help pay for improvements to network infrastructure and wide-ranging initiatives to combat online piracy and illegal file sharing.

Reactions to the report have unsurprisingly been mixed; many have criticised the £6 per year tax on landlines claiming it to be yet another ‘stealth tax’; the music industry has broadly welcomed the plans to tackle file-sharing; but perhaps the most controversial recommendation is to use some of the BBC TV license fee to pay for news programming on commercial stations, many of which are planning to reduce the amount of news coverage they carry due to the expense of production.

The consequences of the Digital Britain report promise to be wide-ranging, and the most significant and overdue soverhaul to communications and media policy for a generation; so watch this space.

Digital Britain’s findings can only add weight to the SIC’s push for faster and more reliable broadband services. The new non-word mincing Chief Executive David Clark recently announced that the council will fund research to the tune of £60,000 to investigate the potential of connecting the Shetland’s telecommunications network to a fibre optic cable, which currently bypasses the islands, laid by a Faroese company last year. Mr Clark described the non-connection as an “absolute travesty” and has expressed his exasperation with BT, the current telecoms monopoly holders, and hopes to find private partners to move Shetland’s position forward.

This vastly improved service will benefit Shetland immensely, allowing Shetland’s burgeoning new media sector to expand, diversifying our economy and allowing us to compete in the global communications driven market. But the dangers of over-reliance on technology were brought home on 19th June this year when Shetland suffered from a 7-hour mobile phone and broadband outage caused by a problem in a BT operated microwave link in Sanday, Orkney. This technical hiccup had detrimental ramifications for many, but for others, it presented a welcome break from the relentless text, email and phone vexations that modern life entails.

And so to a new part of the column; website of the month. It’s rare that a website impresses me to the point of waxing lyrical, but the functionality of Google Map’s  “Get Directions” route planner comes thoroughly recommended

I’ve been organising a trip for a group of young musicians to go to the Heb Celt Festival in Storoway, with muggings here tailing along to act as instrument donkey. Organising flights for the musicians was straightforward enough, but getting a car full of accordions and guitars from Lerwick to Stornoway proved somewhat trickier, compounded by Lewis’ strict observance of the Sabbath and the resultant lack of ferries.

I sat down to plan the journey in earnest, consulting the Cal Mac and Northlink websites, various online road maps and an out of date road atlas. Much head-scratching and aborted theoretical plans of attack ensued until I thought of trying the Google Maps “Get Directions” function. I typed in the start and end destination and a couple of locations I wished to pass through and after succinct consideration the website offered a full journey plan complete with journey times, road junction instructions, ferry routes, street plans, photographs and just about any other info you can think of. So a trip through the Highlands and Hebrides encompassing hundreds of miles of road and five journeys took Google Maps all of 10 seconds to calculate. I was impressed.