Stuart Smith on Digital Britain

As predicted last year, the Digital Economy Bill – despite swaggering assurances to the contrary from culture secretary Ben Bradshaw – has proved a wash-out, with most of the contentious and significant proposals being axed after grubby horse-trading with the Opposition.

Despite appearances, however Stephen Carter’s legacy as communications minister may not be entirely deleted from the record. Namely, his determination to guarantee that Britain had a first-rate digital superhighway through the imposition of a 50p a month tax on telephone land lines.

Like much else that Carter recommended in his landmark Digital Britain white paper published last summer, this proposal bore the hallmarks of a man who is a perceptive technocrat first and an artful politician only a distant second. Which might seem a curious verdict, given that he was chief executive of JWT by his early thirties and went on to serve (if briefly) as Gordon Brown’s strategy director.

Carter grasped that Britain’s early advantage in laying down an advanced digital infrastructure would be rapidly squandered if left entirely in the hands of the private sector. What was needed was a guiding, if discreet, hand from the state in guaranteeing the public benefits were shared by all, rather than a few shareholders involved in a squalid land-grab. Whatever, a disillusioned Carter has contemptuously turned his back on UK politics and joined global telecoms supplier Alcatel Lucent as its marketing and communications director, based in Paris.

However both of the main parties have made pledges to subsidise super-broadband in unfashionable rural areas. The Tories say they will use a portion of the BBC licence fee to provide the funding, while Labour claims that, if returned to power, it will reinstate the land-line tax.

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