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From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the government’s agenda?
From the Queen’s Speech to the next election: what now for the Government’s agenda?

Posts Tagged ‘Broadband’

The Future of UK Digital Policy

“Covid-19 has impacted all areas of digital policy, but it has mostly accelerated a lot of trends that were well established”, according to former chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Damian Collins MP. Speaking at WA’s recent event “The Future Of Digital Policy: In Conversation with Damian Collins MP”, Collins set out his take on the challenges, opportunities and ideas that lay ahead as part of the UK’s digital policy landscape.

A short overview of the most interesting points arising from the discussion is captured below, but if you would like to watch the event in full you can register for the link below, or to speak with us about any of the points raised, please do get in touch.

 

Priorities for the Prime Minister and DCMS

The Prime Minister made connectivity a key feature of his leadership campaign and since then, this has of course become a much bigger issue. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a number of trends in digital policy that were well underway; the pre-existing drive for gigabit connectivity has been accelerated by the increased demand and use of streaming services, video conferencing and online communication. As such we should be prepared for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to become much more of a delivery driven department, compared to how it functioned in the past.

In addition to its necessary focus on digital infrastructure, DCMS has a number of live debates on its hands which will all need addressing in the coming months and years and it will have to consider the disruption of all new service models. These include;

 

  1. The future of Public Service Broadcasting and the role of the BBC,
  2. The impact of Covid-19 on print media and the role of online advertising,
  3. Regulation of social media platforms and online harms,
  4. The future and funding of the arts and creative industries,
  5. The fusion of the digital and traditional tax economy.

 

Digital Infrastructure

While the increased demand on digital connectivity has doubled down the government’s determination to deliver gigabit capable broadband by 2025, the last few months have also shown that the parliamentary party and Conservative backbench are more concerned about “doing it right, rather than doing it quickly.”

This is good news for the competitive market, as regardless of a company’s (like Huawei) ability to deliver the infrastructure at pace, the Conservative backbench do not want to be in a position where the UK is vulnerable and dependent on a single infrastructure delivery company. In the eyes of the government, competition therefore remains necessary for both the delivery of digital infrastructure and a competitive market for retail network access afterwards.

There are options the government may consider, including adopting a similar model to that of Spain, where the networks have been opened up to competition and built by a number of different firms. Or the possibility of creating a tech version of Airbus, where there is a consortium of trusted companies across the UK and USA and other countries working together to deliver the infrastructure at scale and pace.  Ultimately however, the government is aware that protecting the competitive market with “use it or lose it rights” for shovel ready firms, has delivered results internationally and the government needs a solution quickly.

 

Public Service Broadcasting  and Online Advertising

The issue of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is one at the top of DCMS’s list of urgent priorities to address.

No longer does the premium of being a PSB cover the cost of funding needed, and questions are being asked in government about what PSB’s should look like and whether or not there is a space for them in the future.

The real funding gap faced by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and others poses an existential threat to the traditional form of media and news media. The live debate around the funding of the BBC, and their decision to reduce budgets for their local news service is being challenged by Ofcom, as it brings into question what purpose the BBC and PSB’s truly serve in a modern Britain. These are major considerations being made by the government, and greater scrutiny of ring fenced funding is to be expected from both government and regulators.

The founding of PSBs is a bellwether for a whole host of issues as the UK shifts towards a more digital economy, and one thing the pandemic has brought into question is the need for greater alignment of the tax system. Considerations are being made in government about how best to raise revenue without introducing hefty tax increases, and we can expect the Treasury to look to tech firms and online platforms as a source of such income.

 

Online Harms 

The UK had the opportunity to be a world leader in online content regulation, however, over the last couple of years the government has stalled.

Alongside the long overdue outcome of the online harms white paper, the regulation of  online content has been drawn to the forefront of government’s attention by the increased public awareness of misinformation, particularly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are areas of responsibility the government will be looking at over the coming months, particularly in the role of social media firms in combating online harms and promoting misinformation. Social media platforms can expect to face scrutiny of the tools and algorithms they use to promote certain content. Where public pressure begins to mount on the government, such as has happened in Australia, the government may consider the need for an “online audit”, from an independent source, where a firm’s algorithms and internal mechanism are reviewed, ensuring it is operating responsibly, fairly and cooperatively.

 

The Role of Ofcom

Ofcom’s remit, just as that of DCMS, has consistently come under criticism for the scope of areas it is intended to regulate. As we see a reconfiguration of the Public Service Broadcasting service model, the increased prominence in online audio-visual content and the ever growing demand for greater digital connectivity, the role of Ofcom will become increasingly important. As such there are legitimate concerns and questions to be had around the regulators remit. Do they actually have the expertise and bandwidth to regulate this uncharted policy territory?

Possible options for the regulator may include dividing it in two, so that there is a regulator for infrastructure and a regulator for content. Solutions like this may be devised as part of a much broader review of the role and work of DCMS and its related regulators.

 

Conclusion 

The future of the UK Digital Policy remains an ambitious landscape with incredible opportunities and challenges ahead. Our conversation with Damian Collins MP highlighted one thing in particular, which is that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports has a whole myriad of complex and convoluted challenges on its hands. These challenges alongside this government’s affinity for data and technology, means that we should watch this space for the creation of a new Digital Department claiming overall responsibility for driving digital policy across Whitehall.

 

 

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Communication matters: Covid-19 and the UK broadband sector

Broadband: a fourth utility

Yesterday should have seen the closure of Ofcom’s huge three month consultation examining almost all aspects of regulation for the UK’s fixed telecoms market. This exercise sits in the context of a very ambitious political target to deliver gigabit capable broadband to every UK premises by 2025.

Instead, Ofcom has suspended all consultation deadlines and has put any new consultation or decisions on hold in response to Covid-19.

The world has changed for every sector of the economy in the last three weeks and telecoms is no exception.

The challenge facing the sector has gone from racing to be part of the gigabit capable rollout and seeking every avenue to help accelerate build plans to maintaining what is now, more than ever, a vital fourth utility for a population largely unable to leave their homes.

Securing political recognition of the importance of maintaining these vital communication services has not been hard. With most of the population now attempting to work, educate their children and fulfil all their recreational needs without leaving the house, classing maintenance of broadband and mobile services as an essential service is a no-brainer.

The COVID-19 challenge

Securing classification of their engineers and street works operatives as key workers was a critical win. So is new guidance endorsed by DfT and DCMS underlining the importance of street works for this activity to continue.

So, what is the challenge?

In short, ensuring that the operational capacity is in place to maintain these vital networks and, where possible, for new network building to continue. This will mean flagging to government at an early stage if, and when, additional support measures to facilitate this are going to be required.

Protecting the supply chain will be critical to ensure that vital materials can continue to make it to the teams that need them. The risk is that suppliers further down the supply chain are impacted by an extended period of lockdown which may require more specific measures to ensure that the manufacturing and transportation of key materials can continue.

Government is alive to these dangers, but ensuring clear and regular communications between the sector and key officials and ministers will be critical. Government will need to understand as quickly as possible if new operational or regulatory constraints emerge that need to be dealt with at a political level and how they can help to fix them.

Looking ahead

What happens when the immediate crisis abates and attention turns back to medium term policy priorities?

Ofcom has been clear that this remains a critical area of focus, stating:

“The current situation has confirmed the vital role of our industries, and we are conscious that we need to be ready to support our sectors in being ready for the future as the country comes out of the crisis. Investment in fibre and 5G connections will remain of critical importance. Our review on promoting investment and competition in fibre networks and the 5G auction are important building blocks for this.”

The question the telecoms sector will be asking itself is: Does that mean everything just gets picked back up where it left off? Or will the experience of managing the worst pandemic in 100 years change the terms of the debate and shake up the familiar arguments over competition, the role of Openreach and how other players can access its passive infrastructure, full fibre vs gigabit capable etc?

Most likely it will be a bit of both.

This experience has reinforced the critical importance of delivering next generation connectivity to the whole country. The 2025 rollout target may be slightly relaxed if the operational impact makes it even clearer that it is not realistic. But the political sentiment and impetus behind full fibre rollout will, if anything, strengthen.

However, it is unlikely that the perspective of government or individual companies will be completely unchanged by this experience.

When everyone dusts off their draft Ofcom consultation responses or key messaging for the DCMS select committee inquiry on full fibre rollout there are almost certainly going to be new points to make and new angles to explore.

How might the policy debate change?

With telecoms and broadband edging closer to being classed as a critical utility in the same way as gas, water and electricity there will be renewed questions in the minds of policy makers about what this means for consumer protection.

Ofcom is already looking at this and undoubtedly ensuring the consumer gets a good deal and is protected will likely come into even sharper focus.

Early signs can be seen in the commitments from the main broadband retailers to lift data caps and adopt a flexible approach to consumers struggling to pay bills during the current crisis.

Furthermore, when building new gigabit capable networks, this may finally prompt more assertive action on the regulations governing the access of rivals to Openreach’s passive infrastructure (and to other wholesalers’ passive infrastructure in future).

This will now be viewed not just from a commercial perspective but from the perspective of maintaining network resilience.

Precisely how these new questions will evolve into the policy debate will be informed by the experience of the industry in the coming weeks. We are still a long way from being out of the woods but the process of learning lessons from the current experience to produce more effective policy outcomes that help accelerate the UK’s digital infrastructure upgrade is already underway.

For example, does there need to be an increased focus on network resilience when driving forward full fibre rollout and how can this be factored in? What additional protections, if any, are required for consumers, particularly in vulnerable groups? How can the efficiency and resilience of the supply chain, both of contractors and materials, be reinforced?

Those companies able to start that forward-looking process sooner rather than later stand to benefit a great deal in terms of their ability to shape the policy environment in the months and years ahead.

 

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404 Error: nationalisation not found

Nationalisation is back. Labour’s plans to nationalise parts of BT and offer a free national full fibre broadband service represent the most radical policy announcement of the election.

Should Jeremy Corbyn secure a majority, he has now pledged to bring all major utilities back into public ownership – gas, electricity, water, rail, mail and now telecoms. Such a move would fundamentally change the telecoms sector overnight with grave consequences for private network builders and retailers.

There will be much commentary on the commercial implications for the sector in the coming days.

However, it is also worth considering the political process that will be required to make this radical vision a reality.

Nationalisation: Getting the numbers

Firstly, it is important to remember that this whole agenda can only be delivered under a Labour government with a stable, workable majority.

Neither the Liberal Democrats or the SNP will back it under a confidence and supply agreement. There’s a long way to go in this campaign and the polls still indicate that Jeremy Corbyn has a lot of work to do to have any hope of securing a majority in December.

This announcement itself will be a major theme in the election going forward as free, high-speed broadband for all is likely to go down well with many voters.

The key question is whether it ultimately feels too good to be true and leads voters to question the credibility of a policy that will have a long list of detractors.

Learning from the past

But what if Labour do forge a way to power? How will the Party turn such a radical nationalising agenda into reality? Previous rounds of both nationalisation and privatisation took a great deal of time and political capital to realise.

Margaret Thatcher’s converse plans to re-privatise much of the same parts of the economy took three parliamentary terms to deliver. Ticking off Labour’s long list of target nationalisations in just one five-year parliament will be a mammoth of a task.

There are several significant elements that will require primary legislation for broadband nationalisation:

The political capital, technical complexity and potential legal wrangling resulting from just one of these three areas would daunt any government regardless of its majority. Yet collectively, even if a majority Labour government could overcome these three challenges and nationalise the broadband industry, it will only deliver one of the party’s five targeted nationalisations.

Nevertheless, it’s important to note that nationalising broadband is perhaps the most ambitious and complex pledge for Labour to deliver on.

A juggling act

Let’s not forget that on top of all this, a Labour government will simultaneously be renegotiating yet another Brexit deal with the EU, scrapping universal credit, setting up a new National Education Service and making significant investments and reforms in housing, social care and other areas.

The reality of government is that some agendas will have to be prioritised over others simply due to – if no other reason – the practical limitations on time and resource in the civil service.

Especially on the topic of Brexit, there is a question mark over whether Labour’s broadband proposal would comply with EU state aid rules, though they will cite recent rulings on Ireland’s public subsidy for broadband in their defence. It could nevertheless be a potential stumbling block in agreeing a new, closer economic relationship currently envisaged as the Party’s preferred approach.

Finally, were this to ultimately go through, the government would find itself taking on responsibility for a plethora of tricky issues that were previously the problem of private players in the sector. The debate over online safety and the level of responsibility that intermediaries such as ISPs have for harmful or illegal content distributed over their networks would suddenly become an in-house issue for government. Questions over net neutrality – whether ISPs can or should prioritise bandwidth for certain sites over others – as well as the control and use of people’s data, would also be questions government would have to solve as the sole service provider.

These are headaches that no government wants to grapple with and while this announcement is a potential game changer, it’s one which is still far from being realised.

Even if it ever is, it could come with a host of difficult unintended consequences attached.

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