ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

An Interactive Stroll in a Walled Garden

by Dan Jellinek

The Office of the e-Envoy’s long-awaited paper on the use of interactive digital television for e-government services is finally set to be published in November 2001.

The government’s attitude towards the development of public services within proprietary digital TV systems or ‘walled gardens’ – rejected out of hand in an earlier version of the policy paper – is to be softened in the new version, sources say.

The earlier draft, considered by a Cabinet Office working group in June, had suggested that public service channels should never be carried exclusively by a single commercial delivery channel such as a set-top box, since this would raise the potential for companies to hijack or exploit these services for commercial ends.

But following heated internal debate, and in the absence of open standards for public service channels, the revised policy will sanction further exploration of the use of walled gardens.

At the heart of the report will be the government’s belief that digital television will play a key part in achieving its ambitious, intertwined targets of universal access to the Internet; placing of all public services online; and the establishment of Britain as a world-leader in e-commerce.

The paper will examine the potential of all the various uses of digital television – from reference information services to enhanced television programmes – for public services. It is envisaged that the government’s main Internet portal, UK Online, will also brand its digital TV services. It will conclude that the key challenge for interactive services is not technical, but the provision of compelling content of kinds that will stimulate consumer demand.

Once the paper is published a 28-day consultation period will follow, concluding before the Christmas break. In January, the results of the consultation will be woven together with no less than three other major policy exercises in an impressive display of joined-up thinking – assuming it all works – culminating with a final digital TV policy paper for January launch.

The first of the three supplementary strands is the recent Broadband Stakeholders Group first report which urged convergence between government broadband policy and digital TV policy (see E-Government Bulletin, October 2001). A beefed-up version of the broadband report is due to be released by ministers in the next fortnight, and the government acknowledges that it will make little sense to consider the roll-out of a national broadband network separately from working towards the switchover from analogue to digital TV in 2010.

The second is a recent consultation exercise on a ‘Digital TV Action Plan’ from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

And the final strand is a little-noticed but highly significant ‘channels strategy’ paper, which was posted up on the ‘GovTalk’ ( policy and standards consultation site for 28 days ending on 5 November.

Though it was also circulated to a few consultation email lists, observers were surprised that the channels paper, a high-level document drawing together many key aspects of e-government policy for the first time, was not posted for consultation on the e-Envoy’s own site.

The channels paper suggests all public sector bodies in the information age must have a strategy for which channels, from mobile phones to paper, it will use to deliver its whole range of services and in what proportions. It is particularly significant in floating the idea of private companies such as Internet portals, broadcasting or telecommunications companies becoming intermediaries for the delivery of public services - the abstract form of the digital TV ‘walled garden’ debate. Local councils could also become formal intermediaries for central government services, and the paper suggests a mix of channels will be required. Representatives of local government feel strongly that there should be a presumption in favour of localised intermediaries in the final version of the policy, which will also be launched before Christmas, maintaining the frenetic pace of policy development.

Once all these strands have been woven together, the digital TV policy will be an important building block towards the Communications Bill in the New Year, which will set out a new pattern of combined regulation for the broadcasting, telecommunications and online content industries. A wonk’s work is never done.

This article first appeared in E-Government Bulletin,a free monthly newsletter. To subscribe send a blankemail to

Please contact:
Dan Jellinek, E-Government Bulletin, UK
Tel: +44 1273 267 172