This week’s Digital Britain white paper contained a lot of about the “right infrastructure”, a lot about process, a lot about money, but very little in the way of anything new.

It’s by and large a patch up, an attempt to find the money to try and meet some of the high flying objectives that need a lot of hard cash to be implemented.

In any case, the policy will probably change if the Opposition win the next UK election, as seems likely. And Rupert Murdoch might not like it, seeing his BSkyB could be marginalised by the Labour white paper. Meantime Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, is about to issue its ruling on whether BSkyB should sell some of its premium content at wholesale prices. This could include Premier League soccer, cricket etc. That will really enrage News Corp.

The White Paper features a proposal for a “top slice” off the licence fee to be paid to keep the BBC in the style its accustomed to, so that regional TV can be paid for on the commercial ITV Network (3.5% of the annual licence fee income).

That has already sparked the BBC into a campaign to protect its 142 pound a year impost on UK TV watchers.

But ITV is also skint and can’t afford to meet its public broadcasting obligations to provide news to various UK regions … ITV was formed from the merger and takeovers of various regional TV groups in the UK, such as Thames TV.

The White Paper didn’t resolve the funding black hole that the public commercial network, Channel Four, faces by 2012. The idea is to merge BBC Worldwide (the production arm) with Channel Four to give it cashflow and commercial clout.

It’s an idea that the BBC is opposing because it doesn’t want to see its commercial and production clout lessened. Channel Five, owned by a subsidiary of the rich Bertelsmann media Group of Germany, also opposes the BBC Worldwide-Channel Four idea.

Five’s CEO, Dawn Airey said that her company could consider a legal challenge to any BBC Worldwide-Channel 4 deal.

The headline maker in the White Paper was the suggestion that copper-wire phone line in the UK will face a 6 pound annual levy (around $A12) to help fund the completion of next-generation broadband networks.

The Government renewed its previous pledge to deliver two megabit-per-second broadband to all UK households by 2012.

The white paper said that this will in part be delivered by using wireless networks after the release of “high quality spectrum”.

But with Virgin Media and BT now laying optical fibre in major population areas of the UK, and not really interested in linking to more isolated parts of the country, the government has proposed that it will make available 200 million pounds from funds which were not used to help with the switchover to digital television to help seed the expansion of the network. BT plans to cover just 40% of the UK, Virgin Media, around 50%, according to statements recently.

The FT said:

“Analysts and lobby groups said the levy looked an effective solution to expanding superfast broadband to rural areas. BT and Virgin Media welcomed it.”

The British Government argues that on top of the 200 million pounds, the phone levy will help finance next-generation broadband to households not that the private-sector won’t link up over the next decade.

The Financial Times and other papers quoted the Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, who branded the Digital Britain paper a “colossal disappointment”.

”Simply slapping on an extra tax is an old-economy solution to a new-economy problem,” he said.

Mr Hunt pointed out that the 50p a month levy on phone lines would raise just £150m a year, compared with estimates that £3bn would be needed to create a national fibre-optic broadband network.”

Peter Fray

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