Broadband BBC – Ashley Highfield

Ashley Highfield, BBC Director of New Media and Technology, outlined the BBC’s plans to harness broadband technology to reduce the digital divide in Britain in a speech to the Broadband Britain Summit in London.

Alluding to Harold Wilson’s prophetic comments over forty years ago where he described a ‘new’ Britain forged from ‘the white heat of technology’, Highfield asks, “Can we move this ‘linear’ digital content leadership into the broadband ‘on demand’ world? Or will the white-heat prove to be nothing but hot air?”

Highfield describes “a new world of media consumption only made possible by a faster always-on connection.” He outlined the corporation’s vision for a broadband Britain, and urged the cooperation of Government and industry to avoid a digital underclass.

It is obviously hoped that the BBC’s interactive media player, iMP, which has just undergone a technical trial, will be a leading protagonist in the unfolding broadband drama. “iMP enables people to download television and radio programmes, choose to record whole series such as EastEnders, catch up on programmes they have missed and watch or listen to them on any device they want – all through peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing on a broadband connection”, explained Highfield.

“iMP is just one of a suite of products in development that makes up our BBC On Demand strategy”, says Highfield, “including the Creative Archive, the Radio Player, and the Broadband Console, with the express aim of finding the right content and services to put the British media industry at the forefront of this technology tidal wave and narrow the digital divide.”

The creation of “Underclasses” are not a healthy development in any environment, including the digital one, and Highfield outlined some proposals that should help to avoid this – the BBC’s planned scheme ‘Music for All’ and a ‘Get Britain Connected’ week.

The ‘Music for All’, will be firmly rooted in broadband. It aims to “transform music education giving children the opportunity to hear live performances, experience master classes in all music genres, create and perform their own pieces and work alongside leading musicians who can help them to develop their musical passions.”

Highfield also floated the idea of FreeBand (in the mode of the BBC’s FreeView and FreeSat). The BBC would supply broadband ready material, “compelling content” in his words, that would be delivered via services providers to UK citizens. Sadly he didn’t go in to any more detail, so it’s not clear how this would differ from services they currently freely deliver, or have spoken about publicly previously. It is perhaps just a new catchy way to label it.

In his speech, Highfield also proposed a ‘Get Britain Connected’ week to happen later next year. He envisaged this as being “a joint initiative with Government, players in the broadband supply chain (both commercial and public sector) and the BBC with its airwaves and cross-promotional opportunities to target those members of society who might find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Harold Wilson was the first British Prime Minister to successfully use television as a political tool. Hopefully the ‘white heat’ Wilson referred to forty years ago will indeed prove to be more than hot air.

Text of Ashley Highfields speech

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