What will the coalition mean for the Digital Economy Bill?

Chris Marling, editor of Broadband Genie, the independent comparison site for broadband, looks into what the coalition government might do with the new Digital Economy Bill.

Chris Marling
Chris Marling

As the new UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrats deputy, Nick Clegg begin to shape up the new coalition government, tech enthusiasts are already discussing what this new set-up will mean for the controversial Digital Economy Bill.

Both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats expressed concern over the measures put forward in the bill whilst it was under debate by the Labour government. Speaking on the fact it was rushed through the House of Commons in April, Clegg had already suggested it needed to be “repealed”.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives were equally critical of the Bill, pledging to scrap measures such as the 50p per month levy on landlines (proposed by the Labour government to fund a nationwide fibre rollout) if they came to power. Labour later scrapped the tax as it became evident Parliament would be dissolved in the near future. However, it was always a possibility the levy could have been reinstated if the party was re-elected.

Bearing in mind both parties’ views on the Digital Economy Bill there’s a strong chance it could end up being shelved once the dust of this coalition government settles. According to a recent article by tech site PC Pro the new Government is reported to be working on a Great Repeal Bill, which could see ID cards, biometric passports and the Digital Economy Bill scrapped.

Most would probably say this isn’t a bad thing. Maybe an awful waste of time, but more likely a blessing. The fact is, things never really ever got off to a good start for the Digital Economy Bill. Passionately criticised by pretty much all of the largest UK internet service providers, it was accused of being a “Luddite” pipe dream by O2 and a “wash up” by TalkTalk. Sky Broadband was the only vocal provider who showed support for the bill, suggesting the measures could make a “big difference” to the content industry.

Before the election, awareness of the public backlash for the Digital Economy Bill was very apparent too. Pledging alternative methods for providing the UK with better access to speedier broadband Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne proposed the delivery of broadband speeds of 100Mb to the “majority” of homes in the UK by 2017. However, rather than pool in funds from a levy he said funding from private investors could subsidise cabling in rural areas, with any shortfall being made up by the licence fee.

This was a pledge that didn’t go down too well with the Liberal Democrats at the time, though. In response, they accused the Tories of operating “fantasy world economics.”

Now working together in a coalition government, the Digital Economy Bill is probably very low down on a list of issues to discuss and agree on. And when they do end up getting to it a quick and easy solution seems unlikely.
One solution could be to bring telecoms-giants into the discussion. The competitive drive of UK internet service providers could be all it takes to get the ball rolling and encourage investment to expand fibre networks across the country.

Provision for faster fibre broadband across most of the built-up areas in the UK isn’t the problem. Here, where competition is high, providers are keen to outdo each other on pricing and are happy to use funds to improve their own network set-ups.

Recently, BT announced it would be investing a further £1bn in its fibre optic network, aiming to cover around two-thirds of the country by 2015. This is a far more ambitious project than it first committed itself too. With an improvement fund now tallying in at £2.5bn it plans to upgrade three quarters of its exchanges with fibre-to-the-cabinet (capable of providing up to 40Mbps downstream). Additionally, the remainder will receive fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) technology, with scope for a 100Mbps downstream service.

The i3 Group, the company behind Fibrecity and H20 networks, agrees it would be practical to rely on the telecoms market to provide services where it will see a return. Government intervention would then only be required to ensure high-speed broadband is available to more rural areas, where the market will not deploy.

For Elfed Thomas, CEO of i3 Group a ’wait and see’ strategy could mean rural areas suffer for a long time coming. Offering one practical solution Thomas suggested using the BBC licence fee would be a much more “sensible approach” for funding connectivity in areas with limited access than Labour’s proposed broadband tax.

For the time being though, cultural issues look to be low on the list, hardly mentioned at all in the first agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. And even when they find time to dig out the drawing board from the cabinet closet an amicable, long-term solution for the expansion and provision of high-speed broadband throughout the entire UK will most likely be a long way off.

For more information, see www.broadbandgenie.co.uk

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