Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Archive for December 2009

Happy holidays…

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This blog is now on its holidays until early January. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all Connected Research’s readers and thinkers, and to all Connect members and reps: we’ll meet you further on up the road in Prospect!

The view from my office window this morning

Written by Calvin

22/12/2009 at 6:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

BBC Trust gives approval for Canvas

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Following earlier media reports, the BBC Trust – which governs the structural policy aspects of the operation of the BBC – has today given provisional approval for BBC participation in Project Canvas, the Corporation’s own joint venture initiative for internet TV.

The language of the earlier reports remained extremely tentative, not so much about the Trust’s likely approval of the Project itself, but more a reflection of the uncertainties over the project itself. Project Canvas, which is a joint venture involving a number of media players other than the BBC, including ITV, Channel Four, Five, BT and Talk Talk (and which has it’s own unofficial blog – though this looks rather similar to the project’s own newly-established website), is a means of making the BBC’s iPlayer service, as well as other similar offerings from other broadcasters and particular internet services (including Facebook, YouTube and Flickr), available via Freeview and Freesat set-top boxes. It is a successor to earlier BBC initiatives in the same area. Essentially, the project is designed to develop an internet protocol standard for TV sets as a means of exploiting the internet-ready TVs expected to come on to the market in 2010 and to take up 20% of it.

The Project is not without controversy, nor opponents (including Virgin Media and BSkyB), and the BBC Trust has placed several conditions on the Corporation’s participation in it, as well as a period of further consultation. DRM (digital rights management), quality standards and fairness to rivals are all likely to be issues which need tackling, as Ofcom has stated in the past.

Should it be successful, its effect on network provision – with the the iPlayer already under criticism for swamping networks – is likely to be significant, and this has already had its effect on what Project Canvas should look like, particularly whether it should mimic the iPhone apps store, with additional and premium services the subject of separate fees.  Consequently, its impact on current free-to-air television – which is central to the BBC Trust’s deliberation of the concept, given the licence fee funding basis for the BBC, as well as to BSkyB’s own stated objections, is less certain – as its impact on cannibalising the BBC’s own programming schedules. Furthermore, and similar to the arguments around online newspapers: if you only watch the TV programmes you want to watch, rather than the ones that you really ought to watch, what future for news programmes and quality investigative reporting?

Written by Calvin

22/12/2009 at 1:06 pm

BT fibre network to be complete ‘by Olympics’

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Following the lessons of its early trials of the technology, BT has said that it will complete the first stages of its fibre network by the time of the summer 2012 Olympic Games – bringing forward the target date by around nine months.

BT had previously said that the network would be complete by March 2013.

By this time, some 10m households will have access to fibre, either directly from the premises or, further up the chain, at the level of the street cabinet. At the current rate of progress, some 4m households will be fibre-connected by the end of next year.

Any bringing forward of fibre completion dates is welcome since it will substantially improve the web experience, at least for those benefitting from fibre at a low level in the network chain. Somewhat strangely, however – and I have only the BBC report to go on here since BT itself has not issued a press release – Ian Livingstone, BT’s chief executive, referred to the need for ‘further clarity’ from government, with politicians needing to decide ‘how much of a priority fibre broadband is.’ This could simply be a reference to the 60% of homes not targeted in this initial stage of the company’s programme and for the government to decide how to allocate public funds to assist with further roll-out ‘beyond the market’. With a forthcoming election, and the Tories commited only to scrapping the landline duty, which is the government’s preferred route to providing greater levels of finance for wider fibre provision, such levels of caution are perhaps understandable.

If this is not the context, then the reference to BT awaiting further government action (or words) on fibre looks rather odd – representing almost an acknowledgement that the company is building a fibre network not so much because it can make money out of it but rather more because it is a matter of public policy. That is a somewhat strange position for a commercial company to be in, even a privatised one. In turn, if BT cannot make money out of fibre then this does call into question not only its own future, and that of the livelihoods of the people working for it, but also of the regulatory settlement for leading us into a situation in which the logical progression of network provision in the UK cannot be done on the basis of a commercial return. That, too, can only jeopardise the future competitiveness of the UK given the different experiences of other countries already rolling out fibre ahead of the UK and where subsidies are more common. Given the recent conclusions of the OECD, i.e. that there is a public benefit to having fibre networks and that the benefit is one that, in the greater scheme of things is not too expensive to fund, perhaps this is an appropriate time for a re-think of how fibre networks are provided in this country.

Written by Calvin

21/12/2009 at 5:27 pm

UK broadband in international comparison

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Ofcom yesterday published a series of charts looking at international comparative data on communications (press release here; charts here). Somewhat oddly, there’s no commentary – just a series of charts – but this is because Ofcom publishes a full report every two years (with 2009 being the ‘off’ year). Nevertheless, it wants to ensure that stakeholders have access to the most recent data – and a very laudable aim that is, too. At the same time, it gives free rein to commentators to produce their own conclusions, albeit that the mass of data (on top of the different domestic situations applying in each country) does not really lend itself to daily blogging.

Rory Cellan-Jones’s BBC blog nevertheless makes a useful stab at doing just this, drawing attention to whether the UK can claim to be a digital champion based on the generally lower level of higher speed (above 8 Mbps) connections and the clearly slower roll out of fibre (which Cellan-Jones obtained separately from Ofcom).

It’s clear that the move to higher speed/fibre connections has indeed been slower in the UK than elsewhere – a situation which interestingly seems to have arisen in spite of the highly competitive nature of the UK market and, therefore, in the face of the usual claims to the benefits of competition. Some reasons why this is so might be:

– a generally slow approach to public consultation and establishing regulatory certainty – although I’m not aware that this has been particularly slower than elsewhere (at least, within Europe)

– BT’s own financial difficulties, providing a tough context for fibre roll-out given the other competing demands for network expenditure

– the more confused nature of the debate, with the UK having a lower level of DSL connections than major western European countries, a result of the higher level of cable broadband connections (where the UK shares more in common with north America) with the different technologies perhaps adding a level of investment uncertainty.

The generally cheap price of broadband is one criticism that this blog has made of the effects of competition in the UK in the past – although it is interesting to note that broadband revenues per head in the UK are on a par with other countries, while the compound annual growth rate between 2003 and 2008 has actually been highest in the UK of all the other 11 countries with which comparisons are made other than Poland (chart 4.42).

Chart 4.49 contains one particularly useful possible further explanation, however:

This chart states that the dominance of the market by the largest three providers is much lower in the UK than in most other countries included in the comparison (including in Germany, where there has been a very sharp fall, in contrast to the signs of consolidation which are the case in the large majority of other countries, including the UK). From this, it might also therefore be true that the more dispersed nature of broadband revenues in the UK has delivered a more scarce basis for network investment funds amongst those in a position to invest.

Written by Calvin

18/12/2009 at 3:21 pm

Posted in Communications policy

Tagged with ,

T-Orange hopes for EU probe

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The owners of Orange and T-Mobile, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom respectively, are reported this morning to be pressing for EU regulators, rather than ones in the UK, to examine the merger proposal of their UK businesses, on the basis that this would be a shorter enquiry than a UK investigation and that both companies have a bit to fear from a drawn-out investigation – including not least the loss of customers to rivals.

The Financial Times report (which is rather confused) says that EU authorities may investigate the merger on the grounds that two-thirds of the turnover of the parents are outside the UK. This is correct – but whether they will hear the case, or pass it back to the UK authorities, is a little more uncertain and this looks a little like company spin to me (although the source for the story (or one of the sources) appears to be ‘two unnamed competition lawyers’). If the merger proposal was between the parent companies, then the EU authorities would have clear competence to review the case. Indeed, they would be the only ones able to investigate the impact on competition of such a merger in the different EU member states in which both companies operate. But this is not the merger being proposed – what is being suggested is the merger of the UK subsidiaries only, in which case it is the UK authorities that have the primary competence since it concerns competition policy in the UK market alone. For this reason, the EU authorities may well decline to get involved.

My view here is that the operators are looking for a more sounder footing for their constant argument that a large operator with dominant market share is the case in other EU markets (see below, passim) – and that this provides grounds for the merger to be approved in the UK. In any case, appealing to EU authorities in the first instance looks a very defensive move to me, and I wonder whether the companies have had noises from the UK regulatory authorities either that their initial view of the proposal is a dim one and/or that such an argument is baseless as regards what happens in the UK market.

The operators might also have had sight of today’s Ofcom statement on the mobile sector which reports that the ‘continued promotion of sector competition’ should remain the ‘primary means of achieving good market outcomes’, and that the regulatory body should put ‘more focus on the enforcement of rules promoting competition’ – neither of which sends positive signals for the merger.

Neither the European Commission, the UK authorities, nor Deutsche Telekom or France Telecom, would comment on the story at the time of initial publication – providing further grounds for thinking that this looks like a fairly desperate move on the part of the companies directly involved.

Written by Calvin

17/12/2009 at 12:22 pm

A copyright nut

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No, not me.

A story in today’s The Scotsman reports that a 16-year-old schoolboy is facing a £5,000 royalties charge for breach of copyright for filming, editing and posting on YouTube 10-minute highlights of games involving his favourite football team. (Of course, it’s his local team and good quality clips they are, too.)

So, the team: Celtic? Rangers? St Johnstone? And whose copyright is infringed: the BBC? STV? None of these: but the mighty Buckie Thistle, in the first place; and, in the second, well – that’s a bit confused. It’s not his club which is threatening the charge – he has the full support of the Buckie Jags – but the Highland League, whose official – John Grant – maintains that it has copyright on games involving League teams and that the League’s permission to film had never been sought.

When it comes to matters of principle,  this site absolutely defends the rights of copyright holders – except that this (as the lawyer in The Scotsman indicates) is not actually a copyright issue: the rights holder here is actually likely to be the lad himself. Most football clubs have some sort of ground regulations prohibiting the filming of events (usually because they want to sell the rights on and amateur filming inhibits their ability to do so) and quite often these will stem from generic regulations applied within the appropriate football association. I have no idea whether this is the case within the Highland League or at Buckie Thistle – though the Jags’s support for his activities indicates the club are at least prepared to waive these in his case. But, neither of these appears to have been the ‘offence’ with which he is charged. And no-one this season appears to be broadcasting highlights of Highland League games.

John Grant isn’t, perhaps, the guilty party: officious, yes; wrong: absolutely. An amateur himself, he can’t be blamed for not knowing the ins and outs of the law. But, sometimes, a blind eye needs to be turned, you know? A League Committee meets to discuss the issue in January and it’s to be hoped that the common sense solution – permission to film games is first sought and then given (without a charge for royalties) – is the one that then prevails. In the meantime, you can sign a petition in support of ‘Buckie Jags Man’ – David Smith – here.

Written by Calvin

17/12/2009 at 11:02 am

Posted in Social policy

Tagged with ,

Net filtering: Australian government decision provokes furore

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The Australian government has confirmed plans to introduce a mandatory filter for a list of internet websites publishing illegal material. The announcement follows pilot testing of ISP-level filters which, according to Stephen Conroy, Australia’s Communications Minister, demonstrates that the blocking of banned material can be done ‘with 100 per cent accuracy and negligible impact on internet speed’. Blacklisted sites find their way there by a combination of a public complaints mechanism, government censors and URLs provided by international agencies.

The aim of the policy is to protect children from accessing sites by accident, although it seems to have slipped somewhat towards a blacklist of content aimed largely at adults, and is founded on the basis that some internet material is not acceptable in a civilised society. So far – so good. But, as always, the difficulty is in deciding what to do about it, in the context of material being easily accessible with just a few clicks in the ‘privacy of your own home’. If an opinion poll on the Sydney Morning Herald is anything to go by, Australians are up in arms: currently, 96% out of more than 18,500 responses is against the idea. Interestingly, Conroy cites ‘about 15’ western governments which have encouraged or enforced filtering; these appear to include Denmark and Norway while Italy and Germany [registration required; limited viewing time] have also already passed the necessary legislation. [edit: 17 December to add new link]

Citing fairly emotive phrases like ‘censorship of the internet’ and ‘denial of free speech’ is unhelpful here: censorship exists in any society – for example, the use of boards of censors to view films before being released – and the question thus seems to be one of what censorship would allow; and where, in a liberal democracy, it must stop. Judgments are always going to be subjective and these are subject to change in line with shifting social mores (the British Board of Film Censors has over recent years adopted a much more relaxed view of what films can be shown here, for example). Few would argue that the ‘right’ to view child pornography, for example, is a ‘human right’ (and what about the rights of those exploited in the production of that activity?) and neither is this a free speech issue (except in extremely libertarian constructs which most of us do not share).

A completely different, and much more provocative, example would be the issue of copyright theft – clearly, far from the issue of pornography and one which opponents might argue as being beyond the scope for action of governments seeking to define what is ‘acceptable in a civilised society’. On the other hand, I can see an argument that a blanket, nationwide ban on access to sites which infringe the copyrights of actors and musicians is a more preferable outcome to close, DPI-based examination of individuals’ internet traffic (it’s also likely to be cheaper for ISPs, too – but I’ll leave that aside).

What is the issue for me, therefore, is how we define those sites which get on the list; how open and public that list is; who makes the decisions about what sites are included on it; and what avenues of appeal there are. International comparisons on this issue are important – what is acceptable in one country may well not be acceptable in, for example, China or Iran – but these comparisons can not currently play any part in what one country does (and neither does a green light in one country for filtering give a generic green light to filtering in any other). We need to be careful to avoid making relativist associations between what happens in two countries with quite different approaches to democracy.

Part of the furore in Australia is that the banned list is not publicly available (actually, for quite sensible reasons currently since publishing it simply advertises where access to such material can be found) – and that sites have been found on it which are far from what most people would define as being ‘unacceptable in a civilised society’. This is clearly key. The openness and transparency of such lists, in the context of their content being made inaccessible, should prevent democratic governments from banning access to sites where it is not objectively justifiable to do so – for example on political grounds – and where challenges to inclusion on the list can be made. By itself, some examples of unreasonable inclusions on such lists does not obviate the principle of maintaining a list for these purposes.

In a society which is apparently happy to accept warnings before even late night television programmes, made on the grounds of the litigious society which we have become, concerning often rather minor considerations of taste and decency, the outrage concerning what internet sites to which we ought to block access and the implications of our actions in doing so provides an interesting commentary on the state of social attitudes.

Written by Calvin

16/12/2009 at 5:13 pm