The ISPA UK Parliament & Internet Conference 2022

March 28, 2022   |   [email protected]

ISPA UK Conference 2022 Parliament and Internet

Levelling Up the UK Through Gigabit Broadband

On 23 March 2022 ISPA UK held its first post COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns annual conference, Parliament & InternetThe UK’s latest digital policy agenda for a changing world, to discuss Internet policy and inform policymakers by bringing together Government, Parliamentarians, officials, business and civil society.  Sponsored by Openreach and CityFibre, the event opened with the first panel session addressing the topic being widely discussed within the sector, Is gigabit capable broadband on track to level up the UK?

Chaired by Selaine Saxby, MP and Chair APPG for Broadband and Digital Communication,  panellists from Openreach, CityFibre, DCMS and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, viewed the considerable legislative and regulatory steps that have been made in the past several years as a positive stride toward reaching the government’s 85% nationwide gigabit-capable coverage by 2025, which has the potential of opening up £59bn in productivity across the UK.  Openreach and CityFibre underscored the importance of continued government intervention, especially when viewed in terms of promoting a competitive marketplace to accelerate full fibre network deployments.  However, issues remain which would require swifter legislative intervention to address hindrances to network rollouts along with closing the gap on regional digital disparities.   

The continued universally shared issues of slow barrier busting was seen as a critical issue, especially in terms of gaining access to land and streetworks approval.  Catherine Colloms, Openreach’s Director Corporate Affairs and Brand stated that the avoidance of deploying via streetworks remains a key strategy and focus area for future technological development, as Openreach applied for over 200k permits in 2021 with that number likely to increase to 500k in the next two years.  Participants did state that the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PTSI) Bill,  which aims to support and encourage faster and more collaborative negotiations in gaining access to land or property, was a step in the right direction however it does not go far enough.  

CityFibre’s Alex Bowers, Director of Regulatory Affairs noted that Bill should work seamlessly with PIA regulation and stressed the importance for a balance to be struck between landowners and the government mainly through a policy of a ‘shared right’ to access buildings and land to upgrade existing infrastructure.  Tim Stranack from Community Fibre which focuses largely on MDU deployments, noted that further legislation would not be the panacea for ongoing access issues, but a more robust engagement with landlords through information sessions and incentivisation programmes would be more effective.  The DCMS’ representative, Richard Swinford, Head of Digital Infrastructure Investment acknowledged these ongoing obstacles to rollouts and stated that DCMS is engaging with housing industry to gauge what exactly the barriers are, such as an overall lack of understanding around upgrading digital infrastructure, will landlords lose out on subsidiary payments, etc. Catherine Colloms noted that Openreach have moved 300k MDUs to the back of Openreach’s build plans due to lack of access, with clear implications for the consumer.  Furthermore, their ongoing Scottish R100 rural deployments have been considerably slowed due to bureaucratic obstacles with a wayleave agreement required for around every 15 premises they aim to pass.  As a result, however Openreach have been focusing on upgrading pole infrastructure in the region with on eye to ensuring future pole resilience against the increasing rise of severe seasonal storms. 

Richard Swinford provided an overview of the DCMS’ activities and noted that since Project Gigabit’s launch one year ago, the Department has made significant headway in ensuring a commercially competitive market has greatly contributed to the pace and breadth of full fibre rollouts nationwide, especially in rural areas.  He noted that government initiatives such as the Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund, unprecedented amount of investment coming from AltNet providers (over £100m have been announced in the past several months alone), along with the Open Market Reviews for areas of intervention which are now in the procurement phases, has led to two thirds of UK premises having access to gigabit-capable broadband.  Swinford highlighted the importance of closing the digital divide between urban and rural areas across the country and felt that huge strides have been made in this area particularly by AltNet providers.  Henri Murison, Director The Northern Powerhouse Partnership commented that digital connectivity disparities went beyond urban versus rural with him stating that the northern regions of the country are falling significantly behind in terms of socio-economic growth as compared with the south.  Cities and towns in the north that are not necessarily isolated in terms of location but in digital connectivity are being sidelined, with Murison stating that the DCMS has been focusing too heavily on connecting the rural and hard to reach areas as opposed to areas of the country that are losing out on modernisation and economic growth due to lack of fibre connectivity.   

Murison underscored the need for further government and regulatory intervention to unlock the north’s full productivity potential through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is key to driving growth across the UK and closing the north-south divide.  Alex Bowers from CityFibre also voiced his concern about the lack of Ofcom’s priorities in these areas as he commented about the glaring absence of any significant telecoms sector regulatory activities in the regulator’s Annual Plan.    Bower’s went on to state that further government involvement in the sector was key and in particular stressed a ‘friction’ in terms of securing the adequate workforce across the telecoms industry.  Bowers highlighted that more fluidity between the sector and government is vital to promoting the industry as a long-term employment option for recent graduates through the creation of internship programmes and apprenticeships schemes.

Addressing the Digital Divide

Helen Milner, Good Things Foundation Group Chief Executive was in conversation with Andrew Glover, Air Broadband CEO and ISPA member covering the challenges of securing social change in the UK through the acquisition of digital skills.  Our reliance on digital technology was brought to the fore since the COVID-19 pandemic which has also highlighted the gap in gaining access to digital technology along with the skills to effectively utilise the technology for many the population.  Milner stated that 10 million adults do not have adequate digital literacy skills to engage with online activities such as e-mail, shopping, social networking and banking, with 2.5 million adults not having access to the Internet.  One third of children in households with incomes less than £20k per annum do not have access to an Internet capable device.  Furthermore, a ‘poverty premium’ existed for those most affected by digital exclusion as most online consumers will save on average around £500 per year on items bought online as opposed to be bought in store. 

The Foundation have launched several schemes to address these key issues, The National Databank which is a partnership between Good Things Foundation and Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone, and Three UK. Together they will be supporting people with 500,000 SIMS through this national service delivered by thousands of community partners deep in disadvantaged communities.  The National Devicebank in partnership with Reconome, expert in IT logistics and data assurance, who sustainably refurbishes redundant equipment to give it a productive second life, with a special focus on helping excluded communities. 

The Data Poverty Lab, in partnership with Nominet seeks to aid Individuals, households or communities who cannot afford sufficient, private and secure mobile or broadband data to meet their essential needs.  The Digital Lifeline was an emergency response project getting devices, data and digital skills support to digitally excluded people with learning disabilities in England. It was funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and delivered by Good Things Foundation with 150 partners across England.  The programme saw more than 150 grassroots community partners and others distribute over 5,500 devices with data and offer both face-to-face and remote support to help recipients learn how to use their device safely and confidently.

The emergence of a ‘UK Internet’

The UK has been considered a world leader in online safety, with commitments made by the government in its 2019 manifesto to online security and safety.  The introduction of more complex value chains, new business models and new players has highlighted the governments ineffectiveness of its approach of online safety and security through voluntary cooperation from UK ISPs.  The government’s response was to draft a world first Online Safety Bill in May 2021.  The Bill delivers the government’s manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online while defending free expression.  However, this does not come without its complications raises a complexity of issues. 

The Bill is going to impact around 24,000 companies in the UK.  Ofcom’s Amy Jordan, Director of Technology Policy stated that the regulator believes the onus is put on platforms and the telecoms industry as they are traditionally the key drivers behind technologies.  In response, Google’s Director of Government Affairs and Public Policy, Katie O’Donovan agreed that online safety can be enhanced through the development of smarter technologies to detect online harms faster. Alongside the product-based approach O’Donovan highlighted the importance for tech firms to have robust policy developments in place.  Increasing development of internal policies in regard to tackling online harmful content quickly and effectively.  Google and YouTube have been proactive in the past 5 years in setting out clear policies and procedures about what would be acceptable and unacceptable online content for their platforms.   She went further to highlight the importance of partnerships with schools, NGOs, charities and regulators to ensure an effective understanding of online safety and security.

ISPA’s Head of Policy, Till Sommer welcomed the Bill’s content and Google’s commitment to the measures and noted that companies need to now shift their focus to online content and not just security of their networks and services. However, he did go further to state that this would be hugely complicated and asks Internet content generators to make inherent in their content safety, security, and data privacy. 

The task is going to be challenging as the right balance between freedom expression and reducing harmful content will need to be found.  Furthermore, another large obstacle is the large amount of harmful content that is held extra-territorially and the lack of one over-arching international set of basic legislation to monitor, control and impose legal measures on the offenders.  Moving forward this will need to be considered on an international scale and introduced for the Bill to be effective.

However, less specificity is one key feature in ensuring the future proofing of the Bill, again this will be an extremely hard balancing act that lawmakers will need to consider more fully in the future.  Another concern with this type of overarching bill that contains huge regulatory breadth and scope, is usually only the big players will get entrenched into the market as they have the budgets, expertise, and backgrounds to integrate the new measures compared with the smaller players. Government is now set with the task to ensure that competition will remain in place in what has been a largely robust commercially competitive playing field.