Return of the landline duty?

thinkbroadband.com is today reporting that Internet Service Providers have put the issue of a residential broadband levy back on the agenda in a meeting with Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communications, Culture and Creative Industries, which took place earlier this week. The story first appeared on ISP Review, where there is a little more detail about the meeting.

The story is a little confused, not least by the context of the meeting being intended to discuss the controversial rating system for fibre installation, but ISPs appear to have suggested that the government institute an £8/year levy on residential fibre to the home connections of 1ooMbps.

The purpose of the levy is not clear, and neither is Vaizey’s reaction to what was apparently a ‘lively’ discussion. The last government intended to legislate to raise a £6/year levy on ordinary telephone landlines so as to generate funds to roll out fibre in the ‘final third’, but this was derided by the Tories in opposition, with George Osborne taking great delight in cancelling the by then already-dropped plans in June’s ’emergency’ Budget. It is not evident that this newly-proposed levy would be used in this way. Further mystery is added by the absence from this week’s meeting – apparently invitations weren’t extended – of both BT and also Vtesse Networks, the latter of which has made probably the most amount of noise on the issue of the rateable value of fibre installation which was, after all, the purpose of the meeting [Edit 14 January: ISP Review has since corrected its report to state that, although not being invited to the original meeting, Vtesse was represented, by its Finance Director, at this week’s re-scheduled one].

An £8/year levy on residential 100 Mbps connections isn’t likely to raise much money – though getting the principle in place would be a useful start to raising the sorts of money that would be required to make a serious dent in the ‘final third’. Neither does Vaizey have much political scope for manoeuvre on the issue, given both Osborne’s actions in dismissing the landline duty so comprehensively and the Tories having also dropped their manifesto commitment to reviewing the tax paid on fibre connections. Though this of course wouldn’t be the first policy U-turn by this ConDem government, even this week.

A broadband strategy worthy of the name?

Jeremy, er, Hunt today launched yet another new ambition for the government in the area of high-speed broadband: for a digital hub in every community. An ambitious government is a welcome thing and having a strategy for broadband is also applaudable (although I thought that Digital Britain had already set that out some eighteen months ago), while Hunt himself talks a good game – but, once again, I find myself regarding the scale of the ambition as being somewhat less than the words espoused to tout it. Again, we need some more detail about what exactly it means, but what Hunt is calling a ‘digital hub’ seems to me to represent little more than fibre to the cabinet solutions which, although clearly an advance and worth having by itself, does not seem to stack up to the futuristic concept of a ‘digital hub’. And the notion of communities then taking responsibility themselves for extending the network to individual homes raises the inevitable questions of how? and who will finance? without decent answers to which the notion perhaps ought not originally to have been raised, especially not in the context of what is meant to be a strategy.

It is also not by itself going to give Britain ‘the best broadband network [or system] in Europe by 2015’ – though here some more detail was fleshed out in that it will be a ‘composite measure‘, a ‘scorecard which will focus on four headline indicators: speed, coverage, price and choice’ (would it be too cynical to think that this means that Britain will, indeed, turn out to have ‘the best…..’, whether or not an independent observer would think the same? An early plea for the measure to be turned over to a sort of Office of Broadband Responsibility, if you like).

And another £50m for more pilot projects doesn’t seem to be a particularly forward-thinking other than an expression of the need to prove that Something Is Being Done: the existing four pilots, announced in October, are not really yet underway, still less in a situation of being able to identify the lessons which might – or might not – indicate the need for more pilots. A further delay in the timetable by which we might attain a digital Britain is, perhaps, in the interests of few of us. On the other hand, progress by a rolling series of pilot projects – provided they’re sustainable and link into the national strategy, is still progress – as is BT’s own pilot of a 1Gbps network in Kesgrave, Suffolk, also announced today.

A national strategy worthy of the name and the ambition would commit serious funds to a project of this type – especially if it is all ‘about jobs‘, with Hunt citing sources indicating that a high-speed broadband network could create 280,000 – 600,000 new jobs. Hunt again references South Korea in the context of 90% of the funding being committed by private sources – which seems to come from this report – but which seems rather conveniently to ignore the reference in the same report to this referring only to local access links to a $24bn high-speed core network built by the government (with the private sector investment also being drawn from soft loans). Facts do need to be straight.

In contrast, the UK government is offering £530m – the government has been speaking of £830m by 2017, but the remaining £300m comes beyond the life of the spending review period, and the lifetime of this parliament; and, even if it is to be drawn from the BBC licence fee whose six-year period stretches beyond 2015, we should ignore the additional £300m since it is outwith the period by which the government has committed itself to achieving its aim. The government needs to recognise that this is peanuts. No-one is seriously calling for government investment at the South Korean level – BT has committed itself to matching what is available publicly and can do a serious amount of work with it, as its partnership with the Cornwall Development Company proves – but if it’s South Korean speeds that we want, we are deluding ourselves if we think that this is going to come entirely – or almost entirely – from the private sector, especially when we are ignoring key facts about the use of South Korea as an example.

Broadband and the cuts

Broadband is reported today as having ‘survived the cuts‘.

Except that it hasn’t, of course. True, Bullingdon George outlined plans for £530m to encourage fibre investment in rural areas yesterday – albeit that £300m is pre-committed as part of the BBC licence fee, and which the Tories had said would be extended into the next licence fee period (and also now dictated settled), but the remaining element of which appears to be new money.

But in the face of the scale of the investment required to deliver next generation broadband rights across the country (about which I blogged below), and the need for the engaged involvement of the public sector if that is to happen outside the most profitable areas, let’s not kid ourselves that this is anything but a cut.

BitTorrents and illegal downloading

Interesting piece in The Australian last Friday quoting research from the Internet Commerce Security Laboratory that shows that nine out of ten BitTorrent files are illegal copies – and that most of the rest was porn. Given that the same story quotes that half of all net traffic is file sharing, this confirms not only that copyright theft is the major issue we all suspect it to be, but that the expansion of bandwidth via high-speed broadband links needs definitively to proceed hand-in-hand with measures to deal with the issue of copyright theft.

The research is evidently controversial since Village Roadshow, which has funded it, is a member of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, which is currently engaged in what is, in the Australian court system, a landmark case against an ISP which, if the Federal Court comes out in favour of AFACT, would see ISPs liable for their customers’ copyright infringements. Evidently, the case sets no precedence in other legislatures, but it is likely to provide succour to other similar organisations to AFACT seeking to preserve copyright in other countries elsewhere, as well as to set alarm bells ringing amongst ISPs which have sought to distance themselves from activities taking place on their networks.

The analogy which ISPs use is the postal service – which is not liable for illegal material it ends up distributing. This is fair enough, up to the point that ISPs can, and arguably should, play an important role in the detection and control of copyright infringers. In the UK, we’ve ended up with a somewhat illiberal and incredibly controversial measure in the Digital Economy Act (see the campaigning conducted by the Open Rights Group) which may well not tackle particularly well the issue it seeks to address. Regular readers will be aware that I’m generally in no rush to defend the rights of big business – but copyright is a different issue affecting individuals too and the principle that copyrighted material needs to remain protected is an important one to preserve, not least when bit torrents facilitate file sharing between people who’ve never met and who may never know the identities of those with whom material on their computer has been shared. Copyright exists for a reason and loss and damage to the creative arts industry does accrue when it is abused – copyright theft is not a victimless crime. I understand, and support, the arguments that (big business) organisations need to come up with different models for creative content for the internet age – but this doesn’t excuse copyright infringement.

Provided that forms of deep packet inspection are not used, I’m generally in favour of ISPs taking responsibility for monitoring net traffic and pointing out to copyright holders where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that copyright infringements might be taking place. I don’t mean liable, and enforcement must remain within the prerogative of copyright holders – but there must be some role for ISPs if copyright infringement on the scale identified by ICSL in Australia is to be addressed, tackled and brought under control.

Not very Digital Britain

Last Thursday’s broadband industry event saw Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, put back to 2015 the commitment to extending a minimum broadband access speed of 2 Mpbs to all UK citizens. The existing universal service commitment, set out in last summer’s Digital Britain report (Chapter 3a, paras. 32ff), was to realise this by 2012 and, up to now, it has been shared by the Tories (while being derided as recently as last month as ‘pitifully unambitious‘ – a strange context in which to set an extension of the deadline).

Hunt’s announcement, however, abandons this consensus. Indeed, the whole Digital Britain initiative is, quietly, being dropped – it has disappeared from the current pages of the DCMS website and the report is accessible now only courtesy of the National Archives. An extension of the deadline sends entirely the wrong signals about how urgent the government sees the universal broadband service commitment – itself an issue of social inclusion which, it seems, is not on this coalition government’s agenda.

As far the communications infrastructure aspects of Digital Britain are concerned, there were five main initiatives which should have featured (largely) in the Digital Economy Act:

– a ‘final third’ fund (subsequently called the landline duty) raised on the basis of a 50p/month levy on phone lines and designed to assist with the extension of high-speed broadband to under-provided areas (dropped from the Finance Act prior to the election on the convention that controversial items are not proceeded with at this stage in the parliamentary timetable)

– a delivery authority for the ‘final third’ fund, now called Broadband Delivery UK (but which still has almost no web presence – perhaps a sign of its apparently shrinking role), and which didn’t actually need separate legislation

– a new statutory duty on Ofcom to promote investment in infrastructure in its decision-making (dropped from the Digital Economy Act at the insistence of the Tories)

– a new duty for Ofcom to publish a report on the state of the communications infrastructure every two years (still there in the Digital Economy Act, but has little relevance without the regulatory duty to promote investment. At the same time, if the campaigners on the government Your Freedom website have their way, this will also be lost should the Digital Economy Act be repealed: this occupies a leading priority in all three areas of the website)

– the USC (now put back three years as a ‘more realistic target’).

With a fair amount of temerity, Hunt blamed the previous government [registration required; limited viewing time] for having failed to put sufficient finance in place:

I’ve looked at the provision that the previous government made to achieve this by 2012 and, as I’m afraid with many schemes they announced, I’m not convinced that they put sufficient funding in place. [NB this precise quote doesn’t appear in Hunt’s speech on the DCMS website]

Despite this, Hunt had no new funds of his own to announce, being of the view that industry should come up with the goods, together with the £175m from the digital switchover fund and a repeat of the suggestion that this might be extended. Interestingly, Steve Robertson, chief executive of Openreach, is of the view that the government’s ambitious programme on high-speed broadband needs no less than £2bn of public funds to lubricate the wheels.

That’s way beyond anything the government is contemplating. Well, fingers crossed then, for the last meaningful bit of the communications infrastructure vision of Digital Britain. And as for the LibDems, despite support for Digital Britain initiatives right the way through to the election, they seem to have gone a bit quiet in government.