Compensations for faults with your Internet connection, a Universal Service Obligation to ensure everybody can get a minimum broadband ISP speed of 10Mbps and more protection for consumers from spam email, these are just some of the big changes being outlined today in the Government’s new Digital Economy Bill.
The Digital Economy Bill, which has its First Reading in the House of Commons today and is not to be confused with the old 2010 legislation of the same name, also includes controversial changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) that could make it easier and cheaper for fixed line broadband or mobile network operators to manage and build new infrastructure on private land.
On top of that it includes a new age verification requirement for online pornography, enforce penalties against SPAM emailers and nuisance callers (unless you have given consent), tougher sentencing options for people who infringe copyright laws online (i.e. it brings them into line with the current penalties available for “physical infringement“), faster switching between broadband ISPs and various other changes.
At present the Government envisages that the new bill should have completed its passage through the Commons during the Autumn 2016, at which point it will then go to the House of Lords and after that the aim is to achieve Royal Assent by the end of Spring 2017 (i.e. this means the bill will become an approved act).
Ed Vaizey, Digital Economy Minister, said:
“We want the UK to be a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government. The UK has always been at the forefront of technological change, and the measures in the Digital Economy Bill provide the necessary framework to make sure we remain world leaders.”
Of course most of these proposals have already been covered in quite a bit of detail and the bill doesn’t include any information on the vital technical details. The national telecoms regulator, Ofcom, will need to provide much of the vital technical analysis and recommendations on the design for many of the measures.
Broadly speaking the new bill proposes a lot of positive changes (check out the Government’s explanatory notes for extra background), but there are also some potential stumbling blocks too and we’ve attempted to highlight a few of the big ones below.
Challenges for the Digital Economy Bill 2016/17
Making it cheaper to build and maintain new broadband and mobile infrastructure on private land is a big plus. On the other hand it also proposes a “major change” to the way land is valued and this would result in land owners being paid smaller rentals. Needless to say that land owners are bitterly opposed (here).
* Consumer Switching:
Some of the improvements to consumer switching, which might mean you could swap broadband ISP in the space of just 7 working days instead of the current 10, could be counterproductive. For example, one of the reasons for Ofcom’s decision to go with 10 days was to help prevent SLAMMING (i.e. being switched to another ISP without your consent). See our summary.
* Internet Piracy:
By toughening sentencing options for people who infringe copyright laws online, such as making the law mirror “physical infringement” (e.g. copying and selling DVDs) that can attract a 10 year sentence, the Government may also risk criminalising thousands of children and young adults who might not even make any money from sharing such content online.
* Junk Marketing:
Giving consumers greater legal protection from junk email may sound like a nice addition, but in reality it will probably end up being about as effective as previous measures against the Internet scourge (i.e. not effectively at all). Most spammers don’t care about consent or the law and are notoriously difficult to stop or track down. Only a globally agreed law would start to change this.
The addition of a new right for consumers to automatic compensation when things go wrong with their broadband service is, in theory, very welcome and Ofcom will also consider the supplier side of this arrangement (i.e. if the problem was caused by BTOpenreach’s side of the service). On the other hand it could equally result in ISPs increasing their prices to compensate for the added burden and it’s not always easy to tell whether the ISP itself was even responsible for a particular failure (see our summary of Ofcom’s review).
* 10Mbps USO:
The plan to impose a legally-binding 10Mbps USO is another welcome addition, although the Government has also hinted that it could be watered down through the use of inferior Satellite connections. In fairness this may be unavoidable for some extremely remote properties, but it must not be used as a cheat for all situations. Some big question marks also remain over the issues of cost, technical capability (e.g. will it also apply to upload speed?) and ISP responsibility. See here, here and here for more details.
* Ofcom Reporting and Information Sharing
The regulator will get new reporting requirements, which among other things would allow it to collect or demand more information from ISPs and mobile operators. This in turn could be used to help produce more useful information, such as greater address-level detail on local broadband speeds, or to ensure that providers are keeping to their promises.
It’s interesting to note that nearly everybody welcomes the proposed USO and the Countryside Alliance seems to be particularly pleased. The Alliance’s head of policy, Sarah Lee, said: “We hope that the commitment in the [bill] to deliver a [10Mbps USO] will ensure that much needed digital connectivity is achieved in rural areas. Continued poor connectivity in the countryside represents a huge missed opportunity for economic development and must be addressed as a priority.”
The same cannot be said of the proposed Electronic Communications Code (ECC) changes, which once again looks set to have private land owners up in arms. Ironically the same organisations often call for the Government to do more to improve rural mobile and broadband connectivity.
Charles Trotman, CLA Senior Rural Business Adviser, said:
“The Digital Economy Bill enshrines in law the Universal Service Obligation for broadband of at least 10mbps by 2020. People living and working in rural areas will finally get the legal guarantee of internet connection that the CLA has campaigned to secure for so many years. It is time to end the discrimination felt in rural areas and we will continue working to ensure this law delivers for rural communities.
Progress on improving mobile coverage in rural areas, however, has been slow going. Government and the mobile industry made a deal 18 months ago based on legally guaranteeing coverage for 90% of the geographic landmass of the UK by end of 2017. Ever since, the industry has lined up excuse after excuse and there is scant evidence of progress towards the 90% promise. The most recent figures show mobile coverage for only 55% of the country.
The major concessions in the new Electronic Communications Code have been valued by the Government’s own economic analysis at more than £1billion in benefit to the mobile operators. Government must ensure that this translates to better coverage for rural people, who have had to put up with a second class service for far too long. Surely the mobile operators can have no excuses left.
We will be working with Ministers as the Bill progresses to help ensure the improvements to mobile coverage that are so desperately needed by businesses to help grow the rural economy, and by people to stay safe and connected in rural areas.”
The Country Land and Business Association also expressed concern over how the changes would see the removal of the rights of individuals to negotiate an open-market commercial agreement with network operators for access to land or property, in favour of imposed agreements.
The CLA thus wishes to ensure that the imposed agreements properly reflect the true losses of the landowner. However we can’t help but wonder if they’re also considering the losses to local residents of being unable to access a faster connection without such changes.
On the flip side the Government must be careful not to relax the law so much that it would effectively open up any private land, including small back garden space, to the forced installation of new wireless masts and fibre optic lines. Finding the right balance will be difficult and we expect to see some fiery debates.
Otherwise the devil in all of this will be in the detail and most of that rests upon Ofcom’s shoulders, at least in terms of the USO design, switching and compensation proposals. The regulator is expected to set out their initial outline, at least for most of these areas, before the end of this year.