UK: Digital Britain - The Final Report

Last Updated: 19 June 2009
Article by Chris Watson, Isabel Davies and Scott Fairbairn

The Government's eagerly awaited Digital Britain Final Report has arrived, and it is worth the wait.

The Digital Britain Report sets out the Government's plans across a broad range of communications technologies to ensure Britain's communications infrastructure and content remain as competitive, inclusive and forward-looking as possible. At 245 pages long the report is potentially momentous and far-reaching. Controversially the report spells out the Government's intention to intervene to develop the BBC's role, and to modify and further extend the powers Ofcom; it restates the UK's commitment to Next Generation communications and sets out proposals for a legal and regulatory framework for intellectual property in a digital world. After significant consultation with industry and the general public, the Government's plans have a major impact on the nature and pace of development of the nation's technological and educational capabilities for years to come.

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Full Article

The Government's eagerly awaited Digital Britain Final Report has arrived, and it is worth the wait.

The Digital Britain Report sets out the Government's plans across a broad range of communications technologies to ensure Britain's communications infrastructure and content remain as competitive, inclusive and forward-looking as possible. At 245 pages long the report is potentially momentous and far-reaching. Controversially the report spells out the Government's intention to intervene to develop the BBC's role, and to modify and further extend the powers Ofcom; it restates the UK's commitment to Next Generation communications and sets out proposals for a legal and regulatory framework for intellectual property in a digital world. After significant consultation with industry and the general public, the Government's plans have a major impact on the nature and pace of development of the nation's technological and educational capabilities for years to come.

Digital Britain

Gordon Brown has been quoted in the press recently as stating that access to the Internet is as indispensable "as electricity gas and water". The report emphasises the Government's conviction that digital communications are of central importance to everyone and that access to the Internet should be made more available, affordable and relevant. The report is an ambitious attempt to energise and revitalise the British economy, at the time when industry needs a boost. The report does not, however, underestimate its own importance, both drawing inspiration from an Obama quote: "Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age", and modernising Lord Reith's aspiration for the communications industry.

Universal Service

The Government commits to providing a universal service of 2Mbps to all households by 2012. This will be funded through a combination of public and private funding and delivered by a Network Design and Procurement group to be overseen by a CEO who will be appointed in the Autumn. It will rely on a wide range of technologies.

Next Generation Networks

The Government notes that a third of the UK will not gain rapid access to Next Generation Networks unless something is done ("the final third"). To address this problem the Government has created a Next Generation 'Final third Project' to set up a Next Generation Fund, paid for by a 50 pence per month supplement on all fixed copper lines. The fund will be available on a tender basis to any operator to deliver and will provide a part subsidy for the deployment of next generation broadband to the 'final third' of homes and small businesses not served by cable or BT.

Wireless Infrastructure

The Report also sets out ambitious plans for rapid transition to next generation high speed mobile broadband, by clearing spectrum released by television's digital switchover. To encourage long term investment in the sector, the Government proposes that existing operators' 3G licences should be indefinite rather than for a fixed term. The intention seems to be provide certainty and an incentive towards greater roll out of universal services. Regulators must seek the balance between promoting investment or competition in the telecommunication sector. The Government seems to be tilting the scale towards the side of encouraging investment and is open to practical proposals from operators on network sharing, particularly to achieve near-universality. All these moves will be subject to careful scrutiny at EU level where Germany's NGN investment support is being aggressively challenged by the Commission.

Ofcom's role to change

The Government believes Ofcom's duties should be modernised. Ofcom should have an explicit general duty to encourage investment as a means of furthering the interests of consumers. The report suggests that Ofcom's duty to promote competition is to be supplemented to this effect. Ofcom will also have a new statutory obligation to alert the Government to any significant deficiencies in the coverage, capability and resilience of the UK's communications infrastructure assess and report on the state of it every two years. The Government will consult on plans to increase Ofcom's ability to impose penalties.

Digital Radio

All national broadcast radio stations are to be digital only from the end of 2015. The Government is looking to the BBC to assist achieve this and to industry to ensure that the price of digital radio sets drops so that they are more affordable.

Digital Rights

The Government takes a hard line on peer to peer (P2P) file-sharing, characterising it as a 'civil form of theft'. The Government is consulting on a proposal to legislate to give Ofcom a duty to take steps aimed at reducing copyright infringement. Under the proposals Ofcom will be required to place obligations on ISPs to require them to notify alleged infringers of rights (subject to reasonable levels of proof) that their conduct is unlawful and to collect anonymised information on serious and repeat infringers to be made available to rights holders together with personal details on receipt of a court order.

The Government expresses its hope that industry will act to create a 'rights agency' or 'rights authority' to draft codes of practice for the enforcement of rights which Ofcom is then to approve. If industry is unable to come together to do so, Ofcom will be empowered to produce its own code.

If the mechanisms above are not successful the Government plans to empower Ofcom to impose other conditions on ISPs aimed at preventing, deterring or reducing online copyright infringement, such as blocking sites, blocking protocols, bandwidth capping, limiting the speed of users' connections, content identification and filtering. None of these steps will be popular with consumers or ISPs, but the proposals will certainly drive forward moves to discourage P2P file sharing.

Review of Copyright

The Government has also taken the opportunity to outline changes to copyright law as par of the Intellectual Property Office's Copyright Strategy. The Government wishes to make changes to the law relating to copyright licensing and wishes to enable commercial exploitation of so-called 'orphan works'. Over the coming months the Government will be working with stakeholders to explore how copyright can work better for those who interact with it, and the report expresses the desire to ensure penalties for online copyright infringement match those for physical infringement.

Public Service Broadcasting

The report also sets out plans to review public service content, particularly the role of the BBC. The Government proposes to consult on a 'contestable element' of the public licence fee which could be used by other organisations, primarily for news reporting. The Government also presents a ground breaking statutory remit for a new C4 corporation to champion and promote creativity and new talent across all digital media. Meanwhile the FT.com reports that RTL, the pan-European broadcaster and owner of Five, is preparing a "state-aid" complaint to the European Union competition authorities over the plans for a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and C4 as they believe they could be unfairly disadvantaged.

Personal Data

The report describes personal data as "the new currency of the digital world", which some might say represents an exploitative rather than protective view of the use of it. The Information Commissioner is developing a new code of practice "Personal Information Online" for publication later this year. The Prime Minister has appointed Sir Tim Berners-Lee to form a panel of experts to deliver better use of public data. The Report also highlights the need for effective self-regulation of personal data online. Again the European Commission is carefully scrutinising the UK's activity in this area.

Public Services

As part of a continuing trend to position Government and public services on-line, "on-line" is set to become the "primary means of access" of many public services. Quite how this affects quality of service remains to be seen. The move towards virtual public sector procurement, if implemented effectively should streamline and improve transparency of public procurement. NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) will pilot a simplified IP framework to ensure public on-line commissioned material can be re-used more effectively.

The Digital Britain Report is a thorough and far-reaching blueprint for the future of reform of telecommunications infrastructure, content, rights and obligations in the UK. It promises to be the springboard for a raft of changes to some of the fundamental precepts that underpin how we use the Internet, how we access content, how we interact with Government and how we communicate with each other. In the next few days we will take a closer look at some of the key issues identified.

This article was written for Law-Now, CMS Cameron McKenna's free online information service. To register for Law-Now, please go to www.law-now.com/law-now/mondaq

Law-Now information is for general purposes and guidance only. The information and opinions expressed in all Law-Now articles are not necessarily comprehensive and do not purport to give professional or legal advice. All Law-Now information relates to circumstances prevailing at the date of its original publication and may not have been updated to reflect subsequent developments.

The original publication date for this article was 17/06/2009.

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