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What a Majority Conservative UK Government Means for the Internet

Saturday, May 9th, 2015 (8:12 am) - Score 2,217

The political landscape today is radically different from how it began the week, with the Conservatives having successfully won a slim overall majority. But what does that mean for broadband connectivity and Internet access in the United Kingdom? We take a quick, politically neutral, look.

Admittedly we already have a fairly good idea of what’s going to change or not because the Conservative side of the previous coalition Government tended to be the driving force behind most of the broadband and Internet related policies. As such there will be a continuation of many familiar aspects and a revival of some, perhaps less popular, policies.

For example, the Broadband Delivery UK programme is expected to continue as planned. But the new Government will also come under pressure to detail and define its Budget 2015 proposals for bringing “ultrafast” (100Mbps+) broadband to “nearly all homes“, although the commercial operators (e.g. BT and Virgin Media) will already be doing most of the leg work for this and initially without recourse to public funding.

A review of their proposal for a 5Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) is also anticipated, which will perhaps form part of Ofcom’s recently announced Strategic Review (here). Ofcom will also consider whether or not BT and their Openreach division need to be completely broken up, but this seems like a highly unlikely outcome given the regulators past form and BT’s recent threat not to invest in “ultrafast broadband” if this were to occur.

But arguably the most significant and controversial change could be the Home Secretary’s (Theresa May) desire to have a third go at getting the hugely controversial Internet Snooper’s Charter (Communications Data Bill) pushed into law, which threatens to force ISPs into logging a much bigger slice of everyone’s online activity and that may possibly include snooping on encrypted communications (nobody is quite sure how the latter will even be possible).

The above move will of course be significantly easier without opposition from the Liberal Democrats, although it remains unclear whether the new Government would push forward with its original Comms Data Bill or adopt a revised version. The latter was developed following strong criticisms by the Joint Committee (here), but the public has never seen it.

So here’s a quick run-down of roughly what we expect from the new Government’s next five years in office.

Internet Policy

* A third attempt to revive Internet snooping laws.

* Moves to snoop on or prohibit encrypted communications (sounds unworkable).

* Greater support for expanded website blocking measures, such as against terrorist websites as well as the usual illegal child abuse content etc.

* It’s also possible that Rights Holders may be given easier access to have copyright infringing websites blocked, but that is not yet confirmed. In any case we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see even tougher moves to crack down on online piracy. A voluntary piracy warning letter scheme is also being introduced by ISPs.

* A new age verification requirement for access to all sites containing pornographic material. This might work in the UK, but it seems unenforceable elsewhere and will as always be very easy to circumvent.

Broadband Policy

* Provide superfast broadband coverage to 90% of the UK by 2016, extending to 95% by 2017.

* Provide basic broadband (2Mbps) for all by 2016.

* Explore options to get near universal superfast broadband coverage across the UK by 2018 (note: Europe’s deadline for this is 2020). The Conservative manifesto also confirmed that they would explore further top slicing of “the [BBC TV] licence fee for digital infrastructure to support superfast broadband across the country” (there could be around £300m to be found from this).

* Continue to improve public WiFi coverage in various UK cities.

* Offer Connection Vouchers (worth up to £3,000) to 50 cities and surrounding areas in order to help businesses install superfast broadband.

* Support the private sector in making 100Mbps+ “ultrafast” broadband “available to nearly all UK premises” (e.g. the £40bn UK Guarantees Scheme, which works by providing a sovereign-backed guarantee to help projects access finance. Virgin Media is using this and BT can do the same for their G.fast roll-out).

* Review the potential for adjusting the current Universal Service Obligation to include a 5Mbps broadband speed requirement.

* Subsidising the costs of installing superfast capable satellite services to rural areas (most likely the final 1-2%). This will not be popular with a lot of communities, the restrictions and problems of Satellite are increasingly well understood.

Mobile Policy

* Provide up to £600m to support the delivery and change of use for the 700MHz spectrum band to further enhance the UK’s Mobile Broadband connectivity. Additional mobile spectrum will also be freed for use by mobile and wireless broadband solutions. But this will require Digital Terrestrial TV to be swapped to a different band, which might create the odd problem (although most set-top-box kit can already support the necessary bands).

* Extend the geographic coverage of 2G (voice and text) networks from 80% today to 90% by 2017 (the target for 3G and 4G is 85%). Part of this is contingent upon their plans to update the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which could make it easier and cheaper to install new infrastructure. But land owners are opposed to having their income from land access cut, Ofcom don’t plan to lower their spectrum licence fees and there’s opposition to allowing the construction of taller masts. In short, this could be a difficult policy to achieve.

* Extend 4G population coverage to 98% of premises (indoors) across the UK by 2017. Commercial operators are already almost certain to achieve this and probably by a year or so earlier than demanded.

* Support the on-going development of future 5G mobile technology.

The only less certain area is the immensely complicated issue of EU membership and the impact that a referendum, which might take us out of Europe, could have on harmonisation of the various telecoms and Internet related rules and regulations. We will have to explore that too in the future.

No doubt we’ve probably overlooked a few things above, but as we said at the start it remains a broad continuation of existing policy.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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