Text from conference speech at LSE

On Tuesday I spoke at a pan-European conference hosted by LSE on “Technology with disabled and older people: business development, building alliances and impact assessment”.

A transcript of the whole event will be published in due course, but in the interim, here’s a copy of what I had to say as part of the closing panel looking at ‘the future’.

My fellow speakers were: Edwin Mermans (Province of Noord-Brabant), Marek Havrda (EU), Richard Foggie (BIS) and  Mike Biddle (TSB).

You can also read the text here.

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I want to start with an oft cited quote from the American science fiction writer William Gibson who once famously said: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”

Hopefully that’s an apt quote for the next five minutes when I’m going to say a little bit about super-fast broadband, and the potential role it could play in helping to deliver the future you’ve been discussing over the past couple of days.

Now this is still a relatively new technology. It is only 2 years ago that Virgin launched its 50mpbs service and BT was trialling next generation services at Ebbsfleet in Kent.

Just 24 months on and Virgin is offering 100MBps to 350,000 homes and BT estimates that 6m homes will be able to take their next generation product – BT Infinity – by the end of the year, rising to 16m homes by 2015.

Take up of this new technology is also anticipated to be equally fast. Analysts Point Topic predict 600k super-fast broadband subscribers by the end of year. Up from about 45,000 at the start.

In Whitehall the Government has set aside £830m to support their aim to deliver super-fast broadband to 90% of the population. And this money is in addition to private investment – such as the £2.5bn BT is spending on next generation networks.

So, for many next generation broadband is already a reality, and if it isn’t, then it may well be very soon.

As a regulator, Ofcom’s role is clear; ensuring that there are no regulatory barriers to investment; as well as ensuring that the promotion of investment is underpinned by fair and effective competition.

In broadband, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that competition has driven lower prices for consumers, and created significant amounts of innovation. We believe that the same will be true for super-fast broadband.

So, it’s against this backdrop of investment and technological roll out, that last Autumn ACOD – Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Older and Disabled People – published a report looking at how Next Generation Services could benefit older and disabled people.

Granted this isn’t perhaps the first group that many people think of as benefiting from this technology, but the report shows that the benefits could be just as substantial as for them as any other group.

The research also offers a counterpoint to the fact that the most frequently highlighted benefits of this technology tend to be entertainment focussed. These include multiplayer online gaming, faster downloads for music or TV programmes, and so on….

And whilst that’s not to say that older and disabled people aren’t interested in entertainment, we also wanted to look at wider social applications – applications which might help improve health and well being, work and education, and other day to day activities, as well as leisure.

Our research pulled together for the first time details of many of the pilots and trials in this arena, and showed that very few of these applications had yet to become mass market.

Now clearly there are many reasons for this – including consumer interest, usability, accessibility and cost – but equally the report shows how services such as remote health monitoring, mentoring and befriending schemes, teleworking, and life-long learning initiatives, can all play a role in promoting independent living so that older and disabled people can lead healthier, more fulfilling, lives.

For industry you could argue that this represents a relatively untapped market and a great business opportunity.

For People and Government’s next generation broadband could help to deliver societal, economic, and community benefits; which support not just older and disabled people, but society as a whole.

So, if you get the chance I would urge you to look at the report as, in my view, it provides a wide range of examples, which demonstrate how everyone – and especially older and disabled people – can benefit from this emerging technology.  Hopefully you will be as excited by the potential it suggests as I was.

Thank you.

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