Digital Economy Bill a key feature of the Queens Speech

Digital Economy Bill a key feature of the Queens Speech

The Digital Economy Bill was announced in the Queens Speech today, intended to “make the UK a world leader in digital provision – a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government???. For the telecoms sector it aims to make it easier to deploy communications infrastructure whilst empowering consumers.

Coming 6 years since the previous Digital Economy Act, the Bill as a whole is based around five key themes;

  • Better connectivity
  • Empowering consumers
  • Intellectual Property and online copyright infringement
  • Better use of data within Government
  • Protecting citizens online and age verification

Better connectivity – reform of the Electronic Communications Code (ECC)

The cornerstone to the Government’s proposals to boost connectivity is reform of the Electronic Communications Code (ECC). The ECC regulates the relationship between communication network providers and site providers (landlords) and has largely gone unchanged since its introduction in 1984. The Government was forced to withdraw proposed changes to it in early 2015 due to opposition from both within industry and landlords.

Site providers want to retain control over their land and maximise its potential whilst operators are occasionally faced with rents far above market value. Ultimately such reform was never going to please both sides and the BSG welcomes the decision by the Government to place the objective of how best “to put in place modern regulation which fully supports the rollout of digital communications infrastructure??? as the overarching aim. According to the Government’s impact assessment the changes within the ECC will see infrastructure deployment costs fall for the industry by nearly £1 billion over 20 years.

In addition to this the Bill also extends the planning relaxations that were put in place by the 2013 Growth and Infrastructure Act and puts in place actions for the better management of spectrum.

Empowering consumers – broadband USO, new switching processes, automatic compensation, etc

The most eye-catching aspect of this section of the package is the commitment to a Universal Service Obligation. As the Government’s response to its recent consultation noted, industry is sceptical of whether this is the best mechanism for efficiently extending coverage and much work is needed by Ofcom to design this process.

This is not the only measure though with the Government seeking to give Ofcom more powers to collect data and clarifying their powers to put in place quicker switching processes. The Government is also supporting Ofcom’s recent proposal in its Digital Communications Review to provide automatic compensation for consumers and businesses whose services have been disrupted by problems with their communications services. The Bill also includes measures to change the current system of appeals against Ofcom decisions. This had been trailed for a number of years and is unlikely to find much support within industry who feel that the current system, whilst not without fault, is generally settling in well.

Matthew Evans, CEO of the BSG said “The push to reduce costs to investment in this Bill will help deliver the near universal, high quality connectivity that is the foundation of a successful economy. It is important though that the Government doesn’t rule out other mechanisms for delivering universal connectivity; pursuing a USO as a magic bullet could result in less investment and hamper industries attempts to tackle this issue???.