Are ISPs the problem or the solution to getting broader broadband?

We need fast broadband, and we need it everywhere. But is it harder to do with one company controlling a third of the market?

One of the most exciting things about growing a business in the 21st Century is that thanks to the Internet, you have the ability to reach an infinite audience. In the UK we're particularly good at it. We generate 8 per cent of our GDP, £120 billion, through the Internet.

But of course, to start a business on the Internet, you need have to have access to it first. That's why the Lords Communications Committee report into the Government's plans for Superfast Broadband has struck a chord with so many. Current Government plans are to install 25Mbps high speed broadband across 90 per cent of the UK and a minimum of 2Mbps broadband for everyone by 2015. They hope to achieve this through the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) Project. But the Committee's report argues that Government is too focussed on speed, and it needs to change its focus from a 'high-speed' network to a 'high-spec' network. A core part of the concern is the affect the project, and the way it has been run, will have on competition in broadband provision.

According to Ofcom's figures the market is currently split between four key players BT (29.3 per cent), Virgin Media (20.2 per cent), TalkTalk (18.5 per cent), Sky (17.9 per cent) and the rest split up between smaller providers (14.2 per cent). But there are concerns, both at home and from the European Commission, that the BDUK project will serve to exacerbate BT's dominance in the market. Currently only BT is the only provider that has successfully bid for regional funding as part of BDUK, with the nine other interested parties withdrawing due to concerns over costs and the complication involved in providing fibre connections.

The problem of providing ensuring competition in the broadband market is by no means easy, particularly with the historical position of BT. Many other countries across the world are coming face to face with the sheer cost required to invest in this technology, versus the need for competition. As suggested by the Lords report there are a number of changes that could be made to the BDUK project to improve this, including potential open access fibre-optic hubs and public money only being awarded should be dependent on installing fibre to a local level rather than to the cabinet. They also propose "fibre hubs", which would allow neighbourhoods who set up their own networks to retain control rather than being required to hand ownership to BT and could connect the BT exchanges at a set price.

Apart from changes to the BDUK project there are other measures that could be taken to encourage competition that do not involve additional funding to the BDUK project. Ofcom has done good work in getting BT to reduce the cost of wholesale broadband and allow other ISPs access to its local exchanges in areas where BT is the sole provider, and ideally the cost would be reduced further. The Government can also, in light of its goals to deliver a better broadband, reconsider its decision from 2010 to scrap the review into the fibre tax which disadvantages other providers who must pay per metre of "dark fibre" to be lit.

Providing good competition to allow consumer choice is not just important for levels of service, speed and reliability as there are a number of wider issues that mean competition is increasingly important. Running parallel to the discussion over investment in broadband infrastructure we have the net neutrality debate. After many months of discussion ISPs have recently signed up to a voluntary “Open Internet Code of Practice”, which commits to them to providing full and open internet access and not block access to legal services which are bandwidth heavy, such as iPlayer or 4OD in the name of traffic management.

Most of the ISPs operating in the UK have signed up, including the dominant provider BT. Unfortunately Virgin Media, the second largest provider have not, citing issues with the wording of the code. The implementation of a voluntary code of practice relies upon consumers having real choice in their broadband connection, and the option to leave their provider if they do not comply with the code. Were the BDUK project to endanger future prospects for increased competition this would undermine the provision of an open internet.

And increasingly ISPs are being asked to take on more and more issues. While we want them to focus on providing us the best provision ISPs are currently being asked to look into; enforcing the Digital Economy Act and policing Internet users through a system of reports and warning letters; cooperate with the Government consultation looking into implementing 'default on' blocks for adult content; cooperate with the Home Office plans as part of the Communications Data Bill; and all while trying to put into place a better network for their customers who pay them for reliable access and good speeds.

We need to ensure that the UK has good enough Internet infrastructure to support our ambitions and not only compete with Europe, but with the world. The Government needs to decide where ISPs priorities should lie and consider whether it truly wants a broadband network fit for the future.

Sara Kelly is the Policy and Development Manager for the Coalition for a Digital Economy.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle