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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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.