Driving broadband growth: the role of government in content provision

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December 5, 2005

...services such as e-government, e-health and e-learning have particular importance in stimulating demand for broadband services

Broadband is seen as having crucial importance for economic and social development, and so there has been a strong push to develop broadband strategies with the aim of accelerating coverage and stimulating take-up.

There is no doubt that over the next ten years a range of new and emerging technologies will be launched. The general thrust of these technologies will be to provide increased bandwidth – giving the user ready access to high quality data-rich content – at lower prices, and also to allow content to be accessed via an increased range of devices, both mobile and fixed.

While broadband offers consumers the ability to access bandwidth-hungry multimedia content such as music, movies and games, businesses also benefit through productivity and efficiency gains, as well as providing an efficient mechanism for contact with customers.

The focus of many public initiatives over the past few years has been on supply-side initiatives to encourage the provision of affordable broadband services in areas that are poorly served. However the viability of broadband services may also require stimulation of broadband demand. One approach to addressing demand-side issues is the “community aggregator model” in which various organisations, both public and private, join together to achieve sufficient demand levels to attract investment in broadband infrastructure at reasonable prices.

Another key driver for broadband demand is the availability of attractive content that requires broadband infrastructure for effective use.

What role, if any, does government have to play in content provision? In its eEurope 2005 plan, the European Commission highlighted services such as e-government, e-health and e-learning as having particular importance in stimulating demand for broadband services. The broadband strategies of most European Member States emphasise e-government services, with the objective of improving interaction between citizens and the public sector.

So are there any specific issues concerning the provision of government content services? The experiences of eNorway offer some insight.

Pricing policy: Free access to government-owned data may be viewed as a basic right, however Government will incur costs in the processing and provision of such data. Government agencies may also have certain revenue requirements which may fund other activities. Pricing has particular relevance to content that has commercial value; other policies may be required for more general content that the Government is obligated to disclose. Furthermore, it is undesirable for different agencies to have differing (and inconsistent) pricing policies.

Copyright: Copyright and digital rights management are widely recognised as major challenges for the provision of digital content. The goal is to preserve ownership rights to copyright-protected content without creating barriers for the development of an efficient market for the purchase and sale of electronic content. Government agencies entering the market for provision of value-added services involving public data have significant market power, which has implications for competition policies.

Security / privacy: It is difficult to prevent the abuse or misuse of content, however Government has a responsibility for protection and quality of raw data in public ownership. Provision of online government services will require an effective system of identity management, or electronic signatures. Ideally, such a system should be common across all agencies, to reduce the need for different signatures for different services.

The effort involved in development of broadband applications is substantial, and thus it will be crucial to understand the issues that affect the creation and consumption of public services. Only then will the benefits to businesses and individuals be maximised.