British Minister swaps online tactics with Ottawa

British Minister Stephen Timms has been mulling the state of broadband since at least 1987.

Back then he worked in the private sector and prepared a report for research firm Ovum that year on Internet connectivity. “”I made some market projections in that report — how many broadband connections

we would have in the U.K. I said I’d thought there would be 600,000 by the year 2000. Actually, we passed the number 600,000 in the year 2002, so given that I made those projections in 1987 I thought that wasn’t too bad,”” says Timms.

He was elected to British Parliament in 1994 and has worked in a variety of government capacities since then. His current position is Minister of State for e-Commerce and Competitiveness and he’s charged with the task of furthering broadband adoption in the U.K., among other things. Timms was in Toronto on Wednesday to discuss his agenda and yesterday met with Canadian Minister for Industry Allan Rock to compare notes.

He spoke with Technology in Government about the Canadian connectivity lessons he can take back to London and why £5 off your tax bill can make a difference.



TIG: How does Canada stack up against British broadband deployment?

Stephen Timms: If you look at the world data, the countries that have done really well on broadband have been South Korea, Japan and Canada.

I think there are some very important lessons for us around the fiercely competitive marketplace that’s been achieved here with the resulting low prices of broadband. The other area that’s really interesting for me is the commitment to rolling out broadband into rural parts of Canada and isolated communities. Of course, here the geographical barriers are a lot more severe than in the U.K., so we ought to be able to do it much more readily.

About two-thirds of U.K. households are within reach of an affordable broadband service compared with about 80 per cent in Canada. We’re looking currently about how we can get that proportion up from the current two-thirds up to 90 per cent-plus. We’re going to have to adopt a variety of strategies to achieve it.

TIG: What’s the time frame for getting up to 90 per cent?

ST: We’ve certainly set some specific targets. For example, every school in the U.K. should have broadband by 2006. That was a target announced by the Prime Minister in November. The overall target that we have is that we want to have the most extensive and competitive broadband marketplace in the G7 by 2005. What was announced in November is that we will be spending about £1 billion on broadband over the next three years.

My job will be to leverage that investment, to aggregate demand, to bring together the public and private sector users in different parts of the country.

TIG: Do you think that Canada has been successful with broadband because of the conditions the government has set or the private sector?

ST: The answer must be both, I think. Clearly that the Canadian economy has grown successfully in the last couple of years is an important factor. We work very hard in the U.K. on achieving a new stability, which we’re benefiting from as well. My sense also is that broadband did emerge at a very early stage as a national priority at the government level (in Canada). I think that’s been helpful. The government has been able to promote the idea of broadband connectivity in rural areas, to put funding in place, to encourage local and provincial administrations to take initiatives on broadband. I think the fact that there was the leadership from the government has been a significant part of the success. There’s much more broadband accessibility in Canada, for example, than in the U.S.

TIG: Canada is less populous, so perhaps that makes it easier.

ST: People keep telling me a large proportion of the population live within 100 miles of the border, but the sense that I had from talking to Allan Rock yesterday is getting broadband into some of these remote communities. Those are huge distances. We need to be able spread broadband to our rural communities as well. It is an increasingly pressing issue for them in terms of economic development. I had a letter from a company in a rural location saying, ‘If we have broadband in this area, we could double the number of people we would employ.’ It is emerging as an economic imperative. I think there’s some good models of public/private partnership in Canada that have been delivering. I think with some adaptations, they could deliver for us as well.

TIG: Is there anything that the U.K. has achieved that you think you could impart to Canada?

ST: There are a number of things. One is the new communications regulation that we are introducing to the U.K. One of my big responsibilities at the moment is taking a new communications bill through Parliament. What we’re doing is bringing together the current five different organizations which between them are responsible for the telecom and broadcasting sectors — bringing them into a single organization, the office of communications or “”Offcom.””

TIG: How far along is the U.K. in terms of getting government services online?

ST: We have the target that all government services will be online by 2005 and we’re well on track for that. We’re up to about three-quarters of them now and we’re satisfied that by the time we get to 2005, all of them will be online. I think what our attention is now switching to is, how can we ensure that these services are well used? I think what I would say is that there have been a few examples in the U.K. where services have rather nominally been put online. At least theoretically you can use them online, but they haven’t been redesigned for convenience of use online in the way that they should have been. So that’s our new focus.

TIG: Canada is facing some of the same problems. A watershed moment here was when the government put tax payment online.

ST: When ours first went up in the U.K., frankly it wasn’t a particularly attractive online form. It’s been redesigned. I think that’s the key. We actually offered a tiny discount. You could reduce your tax bill by £5, or something, if you did it online.

TIG: What else are you looking for on your Canadian visit?

ST: I’m keen to encourage Canadian companies to invest in the U.K. Our message, I think, to Canadian companies is, the European market is growing rapidly. The number of consumers in the European Union is set to rise dramatically over the next few years as countries from Eastern Europe over the next years join the European Union. To address that market for Canadian companies, the U.K. is the place to be.

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