Following the interim Digital Britain report and now the Budget announcement on universal service in broadband, a consensus appears to be emerging in support of a new universal service ‘commitment' to ensure that all can enjoy basic broadband. Universal service in super-fast broadband is a long way off, but Government is actively considering what it needs to do to ensure that provision reaches those areas and segments of the population that will find it difficult to access faster services. These initiatives, on basic broadband and faster broadband, promise significant benefits for UK consumers.
Part of the challenge for Digital Britain is to achieve a new deal for these network operators to ensure that the business model for this new network adds up and they can generate the revenues necessary to invest. In this context, those concerned with the interests of citizens and consumers should also be interested in what the new regulatory settlement entails for those providers and their relationships with consumers. Three issues loom large:
First, Net Neutrality. One way network operators could benefit from investing in network upgrades is if they are able to ‘manage' traffic on their networks - potentially charging content providers for distribution. This might sound fine in principle, but many argue that this would fundamentally impact competition, the consumer experience and the development of the internet in the long term. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Communications (APComms) has recently announced a wide ranging Inquiry asking: Who should be paying for the transmission of Internet traffic? Would it be appropriate to enshrine any of the various notions of Network Neutrality in statute?
Second: Privacy and security, which recent Consumer Panel research confirmed is a key barrier to taking up broadband services, in relation both to public and private use of personal data. Clearly, again here, and particularly where government is more actively involved in deploying the technology, there are a range of new potential consumer issues. APComms asks: Should the Government be intervening over behavioural advertising services, either to encourage or discourage their deployment; or is this entirely a matter for individual users, ISPs and websites?
Finally copyright, and dealing with illegal downloading. Whilst it is clear that the law is ineffective in this area and reform is necessary, developing a framework for protection that balances the rights holders' interests with those of consumers is tricky. Using technology and private enforcement to protect IP impacts what consumers are able to do with cultural content and leads to new challenges in terms of interoperability and usability. And this is leading to widespread caution about reform in this area. In a move that could block planned French anti-piracy measures, The European Parliament only recently voted through a paragraph in the new Telecoms Directive Package that makes clear that "No restrictions may be imposed on fundamental rights and freedoms of [telecom], users without a prior judicial determination". What this implies is that any decision that may effect the fundamental rights of consumers - such as their speech rights including the right to receive ideas - should be taken by judges, not ISPs, with full legal due process.
The debate on these broader issues appears to be hotting up. I hope long and careful consideration will be given to these broader issues and the correct balance reached.
Digital Britain, in the form of Lord Carter, came to Edinburgh recently for a round-table discussion on the challenges and opportunities for Scotland under the transition to a digital future. The event was attended by around 50 stakeholders from industry, broadcasting, academia and the consumer sector, and ably chaired by the broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch.
The discussion, which centred on Digital Britain’s Interim report, was (loosely) divided into 3 sections – Networks, Content, and Citizens and Media Literacy – the last one being rather shoehorned in at the end, although both Media Lit and consumer issues were interwoven through the whole discussion.
Key areas of interest for the Panel include the proposed 2MB USO - 'how universal is ‘universal’? Lord Carter described the USO ambition as 2MB per sec per household and, yes, this includes rural areas. Funding would be drawn from the Industrial Activism Fund and the DSO Help Scheme mechanism. The intention, we were told, is to pump prime for ‘next generation’ across the country.
The policy driver for this is that once broadband is in universal use, government and local authorities could ‘switch off the analogue delivery of public services’ and move many aspects of delivery on line, resulting in massive savings and greater convenience for service users. Take up on this scale by consumers will need to be driven by both fascinating content and the placing of essential services on line and the government is aware that it is moving ahead of demand in this respect. Some areas will present greater problems than others – for example, Glasgow has the lowest broadband take up rate in Britain and in some deprived parts of the city broadband connection is as low as 17%.
This aspect of Digital Britain has led to a heightened interest in media literacy and a separate media literacy report is running parallel to the Digital Britain consultation. In Scotland, the network of media literacy practitioners (chaired by Ofcom Scotland) will be revising its strategy in line with the recommendations of this report.
Is Lord Carter happy with the level of consumer input to the Digital Britain process so far? Consumer input is increasing with more between January and April than in the previous 3 months and a programme of events between now and the summer. Consumer groups, he said, have been very engaged with the process and the standard of their submissions very high.
The Panel remains on the case, and will be presenting the next phase of its specially commissioned research to Digital Britain shortly. The research seeks to inject a consumer perspective into Digital Britain’s thinking about broadband as an essential and universal service - as discussed by my colleague, Lou Bolch, in the Blog on 24th April below.
Should access to broadband at home be a right? Just how widespread is the belief that it's an essential service? And what are the implications for broadband speed - what would be needed to support the kind of activities that people want and need to do online? Three questions which our Panel has really wanted to test and explore with consumers in order to get their needs represented at the Digital Britain table.
So it was great to get the answers, in headline at least, off our collective chests and into a letter to Lord Carter (click here for the letter). Yes, for some groups of people home broadband is already essential - families with young children, those who are physically or socially isolated, and often those who already have it at home, and can't imagine going back to life without it. And soon, it will be essential for all. These findings come from our most recently commissioned research (due for publication in May) on this area.
As our Panel chair Anna Bradley wrote in the letter to Lord Carter: "the tipping point will be when broadband does not just provide an advantage to people who have it, but disadvantages people who do not." And that tipping point is surely close at hand - given the rapid expansion of health and education services into the online world, not to mention the social, political, employment and entertainment networks which are migrating, or have developed entirely on the net. From Obama's online election campaign and the implications for political engagement in the UK, to Susan Boyle's 50 million hits on You Tube for showing the world that Britain really does have talent, it's rapidly, demonstrably becoming clear that being a citizen of the 21st century and participating fully in its culture will require access to broadband. So as Anna Bradley noted on the Blog the other day, the Panel is very pleased that in the Budget Report the Government confirmed its commitment to universal 2Mb/s broadband by 2012. But we await the Digital Britain Interim Report for details of how exactly this commitment will be implemented and how the Government will ensure that the speed of connection that will be delivered does not become outmoded. And as the Panel has stressed, the Government needs to make clear what activities people will and will not be able to carry out with the speed and type of broadband connection that will be available to them.
Things are moving very fast in the broadband debate and all to the good for consumers, citizens and small businesses. Last week I attended the Digital Britain summit in London (similar events are being held in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland this week). In London we had not one, not even two or three, but four Ministers attending, including Gordon Brown. You can be left in no doubt about the political committment to advancing the digital agenda in Britain.
Yesterday we had a budget commitment to universal 2mb broadband by 2012 - a policy intitaive which our most recent (soon to be published consumer research) strongly supports. But perhaps even more interesting than 2mb broadband, is the energy that there seems now to be in relation to next generation, superfast broadband.
In September March 2008 I said "We already know that the economic case for next generation access will not stack up in some areas and we can predict which areas that will be. So let's address these issues alongside commercial roll-out, not after it." http://www.communicationsconsumerpanel.org.uk/smartweb/news-releases/consumer-panel-calls-for-communities-excluded-from-current-broadband-to-leapfrog-to-fast-next-genera.
At the summit last week, Ian Livingstone (Chief Executive of BT) and Neil Burkett (Chief Executive of Virgin Media) both emphasised the fact that while the market would deliver half the superfast broadband needed, we should get on and worry about the other half now, not wait for market failure and deepened exclusion. And yesterday, the Department of Business (DBERR) said in its budget statement that "The Government has consulted a design group made up of network experts on the best and most cost -effective ways of delivering a universal service via a range of solutions, including wired and mobile networks." Their conclusions, which will inform the detailed scheme design that will be published in the Digital Britain Final report, suggest that for at least some groups of currently underserved users a leap-frog to next generation superfast broadband may be the most economical solution. http://nds.coi.gov.uk/environment/fullDetail.asp?ReleaseID=399352&NewsAreaID=2&NavigatedFromDepartment=True.
The Panel are delighted to see these shifts in the prevailing view about whether to act or wait on superfast broadband - it will give hope to those consumers living with no or very poor broadband services at present. Our research shows that many of them are desperate to have better access, experiencing what they descibe as real disadvantage.
With so much progress it might seem mealy mouthed to ask what next; the final Digital Britain report has not yet been published, but there is a big question about how the momentum can be maintained beyond that final report. At the summit last week, I asked Stephen Carter what next. Carter agreed that the work was far from complete and suggested that there might be a need for not just a Bill, but also for a dedicated Government Department to maintain the momentum that has been achieved to date.
Last week I attended the European Consumer Summit entitled' Consumer Trust in the Digital Market Place' organised by Commissioner Kuneva, the European Union Commissioner for Consumer affairs. There has been an annual consumer event of some sort for several years, but it has been a rather smaller affair in the past. This year the Commissioner was intent on making it a much more substantive event. With an opening address from the European President (who was otherwise engaged at the G20 summit), it spanned three days with a variety of activities bringing consumer and citizen groups together with each other and with industry and other bodies. The event web page can be found at the following address: http://www.european-consumer-summit.eu/
Commissioner Kuneva restated the vision for a digital Europe fit for consumers, which she presented in London in 2008 and updated on progress so far. In particular she mentioned the implementation of legislation which she believes paves the way to open up e-commerce (the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the Consumer Rights Directive in particular, the latter will introduce core consumer rights and obligations). She went on to say that notwithstanding this legislative framework, a recent report on e-commerce shows consumers are not yet purchasing cross-border and then spent the rest of her speech talking about the need to build consumer trust to to support cross border trade, focusing on the specific issues of privacy and data collection and especially on-line advertising. This concern with on-line advertising and privacy was picked up by all the speakers including the new Chairman of Ofcom, who made her first public speech in this role. Her speech can be found here: http://www.ofcom.org.uk/media/speeches/2009/April/digital_europe.
Industry contributors made no apology for the fact that their ambition was to use data about consumers to help them turn advertising into someting as close to information as possible - so closely targeted that consumers would find it helpful not intrusive. There is no question that consumers see a benefit in this type of targeting; our recent research ' No one should miss out' (http://www.communicationsconsumerpanel.org.uk/No%20one%20should%20miss%20out_digital%20future%20research%20report.pdf) found that consumers valued the way their data could be used to deliver relevant material and exclude unwanted or intrusive offerings. But, excited though they were by the personalised feedback offered on web sites like Amazon and e-bay, they were more concerned about the potential for their data to be misused or abused.
The participants at the summit were also very concerned about these issues. Solutions varied from banning behavioural advertising and other such practices to some combination of high level legislative framework, industry standards and company policies. As the discussion proceeded it became clear to me that if any such initiatives are to gain the trust and confidence of citizens and consumers, we need to be invited into the tent to help shape the legislation, the codes and the policies; if policy makers, regulators and even companies see fit to design solutions to these problems without reference to consumers and citizens themselves, we are far less likely to find them fit for purpose.
There is growing interest around Europe in the experience of the Communications Consumer Panel here in the UK. The Panel Manager Alistair Bridge recently spoke about the Panel at a training event run by the Hungarian telecommunications regulator. Last week I was invited over to Lisbon to speak about our work to ANACOM, the Portguese regulator for telecommunications and posts.
The event was chaired by ANACOM's Chairman Professor Jose Amado da Silva and attended by ANACOM staff and stakeholders. I took the best part of an hour to deliver my presentation, but then I was posed a series of very thoughtful questions for another hour. There was considerable interest in the impact of functional separation in the UK and the processes for handling consumer complaints in this country.
ANACOM is itself responsible for investigating consumer complaints. It receives some 3,000-4,000 a month and is becoming overwhelmed by them. It would like to be able to publish complaint data so that consumers are better informed, but the providers are fiercely resistant to this, arguing that the data would not be sufficiently robust and directly comparable. Of course, Ofcom has the same problem on publication of data from the Ofcom Advisory Team (OAT) in the face of Panel suggestions that the data would better empower consumers.
On the Panel, I take a special interest in next generation access or super-fast broadband. In Portgugal, they have no interest in fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) because the quality of the local copper line is poor. So all of Portugal's NGA is fibre to the home (FTTH). In the UK, the number of FTTH connections is still merely in double figures but I was advised that, in Portugal ( a nation of about 10M), it is already around 250,000.
My presentation can be found here: http://www.communicationsconsumerpanel.org.uk/smartweb/news-and-media/speeches-and-presentations