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The State Opening of Parliament took place last Wednesday, with the Queen setting out the Government’s legislative programme for the coming year to both the Houses of Parliament and Lords. And while the news cycle has been kept busy with coverage of this most traditional of British events, was anything said to interest us comms industry types?

In essence – yes. The announcement of the Digital Economy Bill was enough for those in the communications industry to sit up and pay attention and its aims are worthy of applause. The desire to provide Internet parity across the nation, protect innocents from the seedier side of the Web and taking steps to increase consumer choice and competition are all commendable inclusions – however – it’s the lack of thinking around the ‘detail’ or the reality of implementation which means that the politicos have gone and shot themselves in the foot. Again.

The Universal Service Obligation

The word ‘broadband’ was uttered within the first minute of the Queen’s Speech in reference to the 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) – Measures will be brought forward to create the right for every household to access high speed broadband”. This move was perhaps intended to illustrate how seriously the Government is taking the notion of broadband access for all, but given that the USO has made the pages of the trade press since it was first mooted in March 2016, for us it had all the impact of a damp firework. And then we looked at the ‘detail’ (we use the term loosely) given in the Background Notes:

“A power to introduce a new Broadband Universal Service Obligation – giving all citizens and businesses the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed. This would work similarly to the landline telephone USO, and just like for landlines there would be a reasonable cost threshold above which the very remotest properties may be expected to contribute to the cost of the installation. The Government expects the minimum speed to be at least 10Mbps initially, and the Bill would also include a power to direct Ofcom to review the speed over time to make sure it is still sufficient for modern life.”   

By using the phrase “The Government expects the minimum speed to be at least 10Mbps initially”, the bar has been set – those that do not understand what impact geography and the laws of physics have on achievable broadband speeds will assume that they’ll be able to get speeds of ‘at least 10Mbps’. But the truth is that if you live 3km away from a cabinet/exchange, you’re unlikely to achieve a near 10Mbps speed. To achieve this kind of speed you need to be much closer to the street cabinet, but with cabinets costing tens of thousands of pounds we can’t see anyone paying up to increase their number in areas to be covered by the USO.

(Just so that we’re clear, by ‘anyone’ we mean the consumer, the Government, the regulator or BT.) 

Age verification for access to pornography

The technical practicalities also appear to have been forgotten in terms of the intention to protect “children from online pornography by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material”. Exactly how this will be achieved without the ability to teleport through the screen of a user’s device to confirm their age and identity is, frankly, anyone’s guess.

Changes to Electronic Communications Code

This suggested inclusion in the Bill is all to do with wayleave and improving access to land so that the necessary communications infrastructure can be installed. This *could* be a big win assuming that landowners roll over and play nicely as it’ll make it easier to get lines in. The changes proposed are as follows, so you can make your own guesses as to how likely it is that landowners will cooperate as much as the Government hopes:

  • Operators will have new automatic rights to upgrade and share apparatus
  • As infrastructure assets are sold and acquired by communications providers, under infrastructure arrangements for example, there will be no option for landlords to negotiate new terms for existing contracts
  • Provisions will allow fast interim access to sites for communications providers in appropriate circumstances
  • The basis of valuation will be changed to be akin to water and gas so telcos will pay reduced “rents” to landowners

Automatic compensation

Another headline grabber, this proposal suggests that consumers will gain the right for “automatic compensation when things go wrong with their broadband service”. There’s no further detail than this so we’ll just have to wait and see how it pans out but naturally we think this is a terrible idea and open to abuse, given that CPs have no direct control over the quality of Openreach’s infrastructure.

And the rest…

Beyond this, comms providers need to keep their eyes open for news relating to:

  • New measures to make switching providers easier for consumers by allowing Ofcom to require communications companies to coordinate switches on behalf of customers. This would mean consumers would only have to deal with their new provider in order to switch. As we’ve already been here, we await further detail with bated breath.
  • New powers for Ofcom to order communications providers to release data (including customer complaints and broadband speed data) “in the interests of the consumer and competition” to give consumers clear household-level information about broadband speeds from different providers to help them make informed choices. As this information is already largely in the public domain, we’re not sure what value this proposal adds in the grand scheme of things.
  • Protection for consumers from spam email and nuisance calls by ensuring consent is obtained for direct marketing and that the Information Commissioner is empowered to impose fines on those who break the rules. Erm, Data Protection Act anybody?
  • The Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB). A carry over from the last parliamentary term – regular readers will know that the cost burden relating to data retention is one that we think comms providers shouldn’t have to bear, notwithstanding our views on privacy as a basic human right. Interestingly, the Background Notes say that the IPB “would restore capabilities that have been lost as a result of changes in the way people communicate” but we’ve yet to be convinced that it’ll restore any capabilities that the Government and GCHQ have had in the past, given that the Bill largely introduces new capabilities.

Have your say!

What do you think about the provisions in the Digital Economy Bill? Does the Government need to engage more with providers to understand the true detail about how communications work and the impact of their proposals on the industry, or are you happy to let them get on with it? Whatever your views, we’re interested to hear what you have to say so leave us a comment below.

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