Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

BIS Committee has say on Digital Britain

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Media reports this morning are focusing on statements from the Parliamentary BIS Committee on the government’s proposals in respect of Digital Britain (BBC, from where most of the quotes in this post are taken; Reuters UK). However, nothing – press release; statement; report – has yet appeared on the BIS Committee’s page. [Edit 24 February: report now available.]

I’ve no reason to doubt the veracity of the reports; I’d just like to read the full thing. The reports are mostly driven by the press comments of the Committee Chair and seem (partly as a result) to reflect Tory party policy on the issue, about which this blog has been critical, even though the largest number of MPs of the Committee are Labour MPs. (The BBC report also has a reaction from the government.) Even the call for a full-time minister to look at encouraging investment (Reuters report) is, in the light of the new statutory duties on Ofcom, essentially a reflection of Tory policy to have policy issues under the direct control of ministers rather than Ofcom.

Press comment has focused on two aspects: firstly, the ‘ill-directed’ broadband levy; and secondly the plans for a universal service commitment to a 2Mbps broadband service.

The Committee is reportedly critical of the broadband levy on the grounds that it:

Places a disproportionate cost on a majority who will not, or are unable to, reap the benefits of that charge.

Dating back to the publication of the Digital Britain final report last June, these pages have supported – and continue to support – the notion of the levy as being an important contribution to developing access to high-speed broadband on an equitable and cohesive basis across the nations and regions of the UK; and they also agree with the government line that the levy is ‘modest, fair and affordable’. The Committee’s reference here is slightly odd: given that high speed access won’t be delivered to the majority on the basis of a reliance on the market then, by definition, a majority will benefit. Of course, not everyone paying the levy is, or wants to be, online – and subtracting these from the equation I imagine accounts for the Committee’s view (when we also consider that the government target is 90% of homes with fibre access by 2017). But I suspect that those not online, or wanting to be online is – or will be – a reducing number, not least partly as a result of the better services which can be delivered as a result of high-speed access, while an increasing amount of public services is intended to be delivered online: there is a strong link between the government’s broadband plans and its aims for public services.

A flat-rate levy is always going to be regressive – but then, so is universal postage. And I think the analogy is fair. A unified postage stamp pays for a service from A to B regardless of where you are in the UK; the broadband levy is designed to provide access to high-speed services on a similarly cohesive and solidaristic way. The Committee, according to the press reports, appears to have forgotten that there will be social concessions for those on light user schemes. And notions that people who are not interested in particular services should not have to pay for them is a dangerous road to go down for the delivery of public services – and a national fibre access network is a public service (albeit one delivered by a privatised company).

The Committee’s solution here is the market, as well as a small concession via the ‘reduction, or even temporary removal’ of business rates on fibre optical cable. That will help, certainly – but, I suspect, only around the margins where fibre investment decisions are being taken by the market. And it might well contravene EU state aid rules, too.

The comments on the universal service commitment are, however, interesting. The Committee appears to argue that the 2Mbps should be a minimum speed delivered:

Under normal circumstances, to all users at all times.

Disregarding the opening (and rather meaningless) caveat, that’s definitely a supportable approach: the 2 Mbps speed that is delivered should be a minimum one, not one that is ‘up to’ 2 Mbps, since that itself is the minimum speed by which high speed broadband can be defined (i.e. the point at which watching quality TV pictures is feasible). There are technical issues around this, not least in the sense which mobile access can be called upon to deliver part of that commitment, as Digital Britain emphasised, but the call for a more ambitious target for universal service by 2012 is a welcome one, not least since it also re-asserts the importance of the 2012 universal service commitment in spite of Tory plans which appear to disregard it. (And, while they’re about it, they need to do something also about upload speeds and defining how regularly that commitment will be reviewed to ensure it remains relevant, too.)


Written by Calvin

23/02/2010 at 9:00 am

One Response

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  1. I found this committee session badly informed.

    The fact is our current networking is insufficient to permit these work to work effectively from their constituencies.

    BT/Carphone/Ofcom all casted doubt on our consumers willingness to pay more for connectivity.

    No one saw fit as to why our existing broadband connectivity was not sufficiently good to replace our legacy voice services, nor why those existing subscriptions should not pay for better broadband.

    Mike Kiely

    23/02/2010 at 2:39 pm

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