Another £50 million for rural broadband in UK – a drop in the ocean?

Fifty million pounds is a very large amount of money, and it was great to read last week’s DCMS announcement that it would be made available to support the roll-out of broadband across Wiltshire, Norfolk, Devon and Somerset. As my mother is the webmaster for the North Devon working gundogs website, I have a feeling that, with the prospect of increased bandwidth for Exmoor, it is now only a matter of time before we see HD video streams of spaniels and labradors. Something to look forward to(?).

However, there is an air of unreality about recent announcements that could lull the casual reader into thinking that we are on course for widespread roll-out of broadband across rural Britain when in fact there is a large hole in the budget. The Broadband Stakeholder Group is a government and industry sponsored group that has been considering these issues for some time. In 2008, as input into the previous government’s Digital Britain project, the Broadband Stakeholder Group commissioned some research that found:

“…rolling out fibre nationwide would cost between £5.1bn and £28.8bn (depending on the technology used) and that the costs of deploying in rural areas will far exceed the costs in urban areas.”

Against that number even the entire £530 million fund put aside by this government seems rather inadequate. Whilst I was not in favour of the funding mechanisms proposed by the last government either (remember the broadband tax?), it seems that the funding gap is being conveniently overlooked in the positive reporting of fund allocations.

Meanwhile, Broadband Delivery UK, the body set up to administer the funds seems like the kind of organisation that would have been created by Sir Humphrey Appleby. Its web-site has a section What are we doing?,  which I reproduce below.

“To achieve the goal of best superfast broadband network in Europe and to ensure that by 2015 every household and business can access a basic level of broadband, BDUK is engaging with a wide range of stakeholders (including the ‘industry’, public sector bodies, OFCOM, regional bodies and community groups) to:

  • Develop the commercial and delivery models that will be used for investing public money in broadband
  • Plan and execute 4 superfast broadband pilots to ensure that the maximum information is gained for targeting potential future government intervention
  • Investigate the detail of reuse of public sector networks and assets, identify the challenges and develop solutions
  • Develop tools and guidance for communities to come together to help solve their broadband issues
  • Develop tools and guidance for local authorities wishing to help solve broadband issues in their areas.”

This reminds me of the story of the emperor’s new clothes – against the funding gap identified earlier in this post it is difficult to see how the actions being taken by Broadband Delivery UK will lead to the achievement of its objectives.

UK Government starts Communications Act review

As previously anticipated, the UK started this week a wholesale review of the legislation in the communications sector. Minister Jeremy Hunt published an open letter seeking replies by 30 June.

The letter addresses 3 themes:

  • Growth, innovation and deregulation;
  • A communications infrastructure that provides the foundations for growth; and
  • Creating the right environment for the content industry to thrive.

The letter seeks views on a number of questions:

Q1. What could a healthier communications market look like? How can the right balance be achieved between investment, competition and services in a changing technological environment?

 Q2.  What action can be taken to facilitate greater innovation and growth across the wider competition regime, and how can deregulation help achieve this?

 Q3. Is regulatory convergence across different platforms desirable and, if so, what are the potential issues to implementation?

 Q4. What barriers can be removed to facilitate greater exports and inward investment and make the UK more globally competitive in digital communications?

Q5. What further market and regulatory developments would lead to widespread take-up of superfast broadband? What regulatory action would government need to take to make superfast broadband more readily available in a) urban areas; and, b) rural areas?

 Q6.   What are the competing demands for spectrum, how is the market changing and how can a regulatory framework best accommodate any rapidly changing demands on spectrum and market development?

 Q7. How should spectrum be managed to deliver our growth objectives whilst also meeting our policy objectives of furthering the interests of citizens and consumers in relation to communications matters?

 Q8. How should the UK engage on an EU/International level in relation to spectrum?

 Q9. Is the current mix of regulation, competition and Government intervention right to stimulate investment in communications networks?

Q10. Are there disproportionate regulatory barriers to investment in content? If so, what are they and how can increased investment in UK content production be encouraged?

 Q11. Should the core focus of public service broadcasting be on original UK content?

 Q12.  What barriers are there to innovation in new digital media sectors, including video games, telemedicine, local television and education?

 Q13. Where has self- and co-regulation worked successfully and what can be learnt from specific approaches? Where specific approaches haven’t worked, how can the framework of content regulation be made sufficiently coherent and not create barriers to growth, but at the same time protect citizens and enable consumer confidence?

UK Government asks Ofcom to assess practicality of blocking copyright infringing web-sites

Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s Culture Secretary (who also has responsibility for telecoms) today asked Ofcom to review sections of the Digital Economy Act to assess whether it considers that the reserve powers enabling the courts to block access to copyright infringing web-sites could work in practice. This is apparently in response to comments posted on the new Government’s “Your Freedom” web-site.

Related provisions (3-18) of the Digital Economy Act have proved to be contentious and the Act itself is subject to a judicial review hearing in March initiated by BT and TalkTalk. The review announced therefore excludes questions of proportionality and compliance with European commercial law and the Human Rights Act as these are considered in the judicial review.

The press release explains that Ofcom’s terms of reference are to assess:

  • Is it possible for access to the site to be blocked by internet service providers?
  • How robust would such a block be – in other words would it have the intended effect, and how easy would it be to circumvent for most site operators?
  • What measures might be adopted by internet service providers to prevent such circumvention?
  • How granular can blocking be – i.e. can specific parts of the site be blocked, how precise can this be, and how effective?
  • How effective are sections 17 and 18 of the Act in providing for an appropriate method of generating lists of sites to be blocked?
  • If possible, identify either a potential range of costs for ISP blocking solutions or the main drivers of those costs.

Given the deeply held views on each side of this debate, I would expect that Ofcom’s review will be rather lively. So far as next steps are concerned I would expect that Ofcom is likely to consult by means of meetings, workshops and/or a formal consultation to gather views for its report. I will report on that as more detail emerges.

For those interested in the detail, Section 17 of the Digital Economy Act provides:

‘(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision about the granting by a court of a blocking injunction in respect of a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright.

(2) “Blocking injunction” means an injunction that requires a service provider to prevent its service being used to gain access to the location.

(3) The Secretary of State may not make regulations under this section unless satisfied that—

(a) the use of the internet for activities that infringe copyright is having a serious adverse effect on businesses or consumers,

(b) making the regulations is a proportionate way to address that effect, and

(c) making the regulations would not prejudice national security or the prevention or detection of crime.

(4) The regulations must provide that a court may not grant an injunction unless satisfied that the location is—

(a) a location from which a substantial amount of material has been, is being or is likely to be obtained in infringement of copyright,

(b) a location at which a substantial amount of material has been, is being or is likely to be made available in infringement of copyright, or

(c) a location which has been, is being or is likely to be used to facilitate access to a location within paragraph (a) or (b).

(5) The regulations must provide that, in determining whether to grant an injunction, the court must take account of—

(a) any evidence presented of steps taken by the service provider, or by an operator of the location, to prevent infringement of copyright in the qualifying material,

(b) any evidence presented of steps taken by the copyright owner, or by a licensee of copyright in the qualifying material, to facilitate lawful access to the qualifying material,

(c) any representations made by a Minister of the Crown,

(d) whether the injunction would be likely to have a disproportionate effect on any person’s legitimate interests, and

(e) the importance of freedom of expression.

(6) The regulations must provide that a court may not grant an injunction unless notice of the application for the injunction has been given, in such form and by such means as is specified in the regulations, to—

(a) the service provider, and

(b) operators of the location.

(7) The regulations may, in particular—

(a) make provision about when a location is, or is not, to be treated as being used to facilitate access to another location,

(b) provide that notice of an application for an injunction may be given to operators of a location by being published in accordance with the regulations,

(c) provide that a court may not make an order for costs against the service provider,

(d) make different provision for different purposes, and

(e) make incidental, supplementary, consequential, transitional, transitory or saving provision.

(8) The regulations may—

(a) modify Chapter 6 of Part 1 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, and

(b) make consequential provision modifying Acts and subordinate legislation. …’