Britain slips in world IT stakes

Britain has slipped in the last year when it comes to the effective use of information technology, the latest report by the Global Economic Forum has revealed.

The GET’s Global Information Technology Report puts the U.K. at a rather embarrassing 15th out of 102 countries in its “network readiness index”, compared to seventh the year before and 10th the year before that.

Top of course was the U.S., followed by Singapore (third last year) and Scandinavian countries making up the rest of the top five. The U.K. was also beaten by Canada, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, Iceland, Germany, Japan, Netherlands and Luxembourg.

(The worst incidentally are Chad, Ethiopia, Haiti, Angola and Honduras, in that order.)

So, what’s gone wrong? The report is upbeat in its assessment of the market this year and next. Its introduction complains of the slowdown in ICT spending since the dotcom bubble burst but delights that “2003 has seen a reversal of sentiments in the financial markets” and started on a “new and positive cycle”.

It describes the network readiness index it uses to rank countries as “the degree of preparation of a nation or community to participate in and benefit from ICT developments”. So is the U.K. less prepared to make good on its IT investment, are we slow to pick up on an improving market, or have we simply been overtaken by others?

It would be remiss of us to fail to point out that GET might as well stand for “Get more IT kit, pay us, and worry what to do about it next” since six of its very biggest “strategic partners” are Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., Siemens AG and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The report makes big play of the fact that developing countries benefit hugely from investing in ICT, yet a cynic would suggest that conclusion may stem more from the fact that they are huge growth markets for technology as opposed to the largely saturated West. Nevertheless, the comprehensive survey does contain some eye-opening figures.

The U.K. comes 10th in terms of “readiness” but 14th in “environment” and, crucially, 21st in “usage”. We are second in Europe (behind Germany) when looking at the number of Internet users, television sets, PCs and telephones but can’t seem to translate this into real benefits.

There’s no shortage of money either. We are second in the world when it comes to availability of venture capital. We are fifth in scientific research (although 37th in terms of the availability of scientists and engineers). We are the fastest in the world when it comes to getting a new telephone line put in (but 22nd and 26th when it comes to the ease and the cost of it). We have the least restrictions to foreign companies on the planet. We are also eighth in terms of competition in the Internet Service Provider (ISP) market. But retain an incredibly poor 67th when it comes to the affordability of Internet access (where the blame lies squarely with BT Group PLC).

Much fuss has been made this year about how many more U.K. citizens have got online, but there are other countries continuing to move faster – and not just developing countries. The government comes a respectable fifth in terms of online presence yet comes 42nd in terms of procurement – reflecting the numerous multi-million-pound cock-ups recently.

Unfortunately though, with such a wide review, the report only concentrates on those leading the way and so fails to attempt to explain where the U.K. is getting it, if not wrong, then not as right as many others. It seems that that we aren’t making the most of what we’ve got.

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