Advancing the digital economy

In an interview, Purvi Parekh considers the key aspects of the Queen’s 2016 Speech relating to the telecoms sector.

What were the key announcements in the Queen’s Speech affecting the telecommunications industry?

The Queen’s annual speech in Parliament was particularly relevant to the telecoms industry this year. The most important reform discussed was the implementation of a Digital Economy Bill, designed to help the UK become a leader in the digital economy an objective that has been much reinforced throughout Europe over the last decade. Given the changes proposed across copyright laws and design rights, the Digital Economy Bill will be of relevance to all practitioners across the technology, media and telecoms sector. The plans include:

  • giving every household a legal right to a fast broadband connection
  • introducing new laws to help telecommunications providers build the infrastructure needed for faster broadband and better mobile networks
  • implementing new legislation to allow consumers to be automatically compensated when things go wrong with their broadband service

Is the government’s plan to ensure every household in the UK has the legal right to high-speed broadband possible? How would they achieve this goal?

The universal service obligation (USO) is imposed on telecom operators to ensure that basic fixed line services are available at an affordable price to all citizen -customers across the UK. The government intend to achieve their ‘high -speed’ broadband goal by introducing a USO for broadband. This will give every UK household, regardless of the actual location, a legal right to request a broadband connection with a speed of ten megabits per second. The UK would not be the first country to adopt a broadband USO. Switzerland was the first country in the world to provide broadband universal service in January 2008, followed by Spain and Finland, each guaranteeing 1Mbit/s. There has, however, been much debate about extending USO to broadband services, and telecoms operators have raised concerns about this, largely because of the cost implications. Hence the proposed reforms come with a cost threshold allocation, above which remote properties may still be required to contribute to the installation costs for their broadband services.

What new laws will be introduced to aid telecommunications providers build the infrastructure needed to supply faster broadband? How ambitious is this project?

The Digital Economy Bill also contains a new electronic communications code. The current version of the code enables electronic communications network providers to construct electronic communications networks and enables these providers to construct infrastructure on public land (streets), to take rights over private land, either with the agreement of the landowner or by applying to court. Although this may seem to be a new development, consultation on the changes to the code have actually been on -going since 2013 following a publication by the Law Commission and the introduction of subsequent amendment drafts over the last 18 months. The government has already published a statement detailing the amendments to the code. The Digital Economy Bill is also of key interest to the property sector as it is to introduce a long-awaited new Electronic Communications Code to simplify rules for building broadband infrastructure.

Were there any surprise omissions in the Queen’s Speech?

There were not really any surprise omissions in the Queen’s Speech with respect to the telecoms sector. The extension of universal service to broadband and the changes to the electronic communications code were already well advanced. The more controversial overhaul of law enforcement rights for the interception of communications and data was also not unexpected. A new ‘Investigatory Powers Commissioner’ will be appointed to oversee implementation of the reforms. Further internet connection records will not be included in retention of data requirements so that security and intelligence agencies can identify the communications services to which a device has been connected.

Is there anything lawyers and their clients should do in light of the announcements?

Telecom operators/electronic communication service and network providers need to be aware of the changes proposed in the Digital Economy Bill as they will have a higher threshold of compliance. The broadband USO and the changes to the code have already been on the table for some time and clients operating in the telecoms industry will already be well aware of them. However, there are also a secondary tier of changes, such as a new regulatory power granted to Ofcom to order communications providers to release data in the interests of consumers and competition (e.g. customer complaints, broadband speeds etc). There are also new consumer protections to support consumers to deal with spam and nuisance calls, and allow an easier route for customers to switch communication providers. All of these will require operational changes which clients will need to understand and implement in their day to day business practices. In addition, clients need to look at the changes proposed with a much wider eye, beyond the telecoms sector. Although the Digital Economy Bill is the most far reaching with respect to telecoms reform, other bills will also have an impact —e.g. the Investigatory Powers Bill (see above) and the Modern Transport Bill which will regulate telecoms technology such as drones.

What are the trends? Do you have any predictions for the future?

Governments, regulators and operators will continue to recognise the importance of, and promote network infrastructure and investment in, the telecoms network. Equally they will continue to support the telecom operators with their build outs and support innovation and cost savings that they can generate through deals such as network sharing. They will continue to be mindful of costs implications for telecoms and broadly legislation which will be financially burdensome will be introduced with much caution and much consultation. This remains true except where national security comes into the debate. We will continue to see privacy rights overridden by government mandates to ‘modernise’ investigatory powers law to enable use and oversight of communications data by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.