Can Broadband save the world?

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In a rare moment of political unity, both Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron have decided that high speed broadband infrastructure will play a vital part in digging the economy out of recession.

Brown declared on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday that building out Britain’s digital infrastructure will stimulate the economy in the same way that building roads, bridges and railways had done in previous centuries.

David Cameron is touring the UK this week promising a Tory government will drive investment in fibre optic broadband “right into people’s homes”.

As ever, with politicians, these statements are light on detail. Nevertheless, they are an important declaration of intent.

As the economy tightens and as we head towards an election, IT professionals and the organisations they belong to should hold Brown and Cameron to their word. The key public policy technology issue for 2009 should be the best way to improve the basic digital infrastructure of the UK.

New Labour’s Broadband Britain campaign may be almost a decade old and it may not have fully delivered on its promise, but we would a lot worse off without it. Now we need its successor.

A bidding war between Brown and Cameron over who would do most to improve the UK’s digital well being would be one of the more useful political jousts of the next 12 months.

Across the Atlantic, where Barack Obama is preparing to take office, the politics of digital access is also raising its head.

Today’s Financial Times editorial focuses on what it sees as the threat of legislation by the incoming president to prevent telecoms and network providers from charging premium rates for certain kinds of traffic.

The FT states the “US government should not try to enforce net neutrality”. Legislation, it says is “well-meaning but misguided. It prevents the market from rationing a scarce resource.”

The FT's argument would have been crude, even before the credit crunch and banking crisis, but it is also plain wrong.

Markets don’t always work, that is partly why governments exist, and it is in no one’s interests for bandwidth to be a “scarce resource”.

The internet has been one of the greatest drivers of innovation, democracy and culture the world has ever seen. It is enabling the next revolution in the IT industry – through cloud computing and software as a service. If Brown and Cameron are right, it will help drag the economy out of the downturn. No one should be able to choke it off.