Pipes or Plumbing?

First published here on 30/12/08.

Two well know strategists, Robin Foster and Kip Meek (both of whom worked at Ofcom several years ago,) have written an interesting paper for the Social Market Foundation on the future of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB).

As with super-fast broadband, the issue of funding is at the cornnerstone of the current debate on the future of PSB. You can find out more about this debate by visiting our PSB blog. In both of these debates the issue of who will pay – and the value of the wider social and economic value of this investment – is never far away.

Ofcom research published in September 2008 suggested that to maintain existing levels of PSB in the UK a total funding requirement of between £330-420m p.a. is needed to sustain public service provision by 2012. By the same token, estimates of the sums needed to deliver a super-fast broadband network across the UK vary from anywhere between £5-30 billion, depending on speeds, deployment technologies, and so on.

With so many demands on the public purse; from banks to hospitals, schools to defence, there’s only so much that Government can do and clearly the decision makers will have some tough questions to answer in the near future.

Foster and Meek have an interesting take on this, amalgamating the two debates by placing the emphasis on creating high-speed broadband networks, but suggesting that through these networks citizens and consumers would be able to access as much, if not more, PSB content than at present.

The document, supported by the BBC and Five, is well worth a read, even if it hasn’t attracted as much comment as might have been expected.

From my perspective, it does add something new to the mix. Much of the public debate about PSB seems to focus on preserving the current broadcasting ecology, whilst this proposal outlines a different way of doing things. Part of the challenge is that arguably you’re not comparing like with like; PSB programming is accessed – and paid for – by almost 100% of homes, whereas existing internet penetration is 68%, with only 58% of homes signed up to broadband.

So, if you were a Minister in these uncertain times, where would you put your money? Would you look to the future by upgrading the existing broadband infrastructure which only two-thirds of the population tend to utilise, or shore up the structure of our current – widely used – PSB broadcasting system?

One thing’s for sure, it’s not an easy decision to make.

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