Bird & Bird's review of the communications aspects of the UK Government's July 2013 White Paper

06 August 2013

Colin Long

The UK Government (Department for Culture, Media & Sport) published its long-awaited White Paper last week entitled: 

Connectivity, Content and Consumers - Britain’s digital platform for growth

The White Paper was developed by the Coalition Government partly in light of concerns that regulation of the electronic communications sector was not functioning as well as it should and that the surrounding legislation might require an overhaul. As regards the connectivity piece, the White Paper pulls together the Government's thoughts and pre-existing initiatives, alongside some future promises, the highlights of which are summarised below:

Broadband

Some £1.2 billion of public funds is being invested to bring broadband to rural communities (the Government does not mention the delays that have occurred in its disbursement, partly due to obtaining EU State Aid approvals). It is to make a further £250 million investment, to be locally matched, to extend superfast broadband to 95% of UK premises by 2017, and is exploring with industry how to develop more innovative fixed, wireless and mobile broadband solutions required to move to 99% superfast coverage by 2018 (that may seem rather ambitious, though there is some elasticity in the term 'superfast').

Mobile


Currently mobile coverage stands at over 99% of UK premises, but there are still some 80,000 premises in complete 'not-spots', the majority in rural areas. The Government committed (in 2011) a total of £150 million to improve mobile coverage and quality; in May this year Arqiva was appointed to provide this infrastructure. With 4G now being successfully rolled out and competition between the various 4G licensees beginning to mount, the Government states it is working with the University of Surrey, the wider research community and industry to establish 'the world's first test-bed' for 5G technologies and services, in order for the UK to become a world-leader in such technologies.

Spectrum


The Government has answered the cries from the industry and promised, working with Ofcom and spectrum users (e.g. mobile operators), to develop a 10-year UK Spectrum Strategy 'to deliver greater public value from the use of electromagnetic spectrum'. In another response to public pleas for clarity on demarcation, the strategy document will apparently 'clearly set out the roles and responsibilities of Government and those for Ofcom and spectrum users'. The strategy will also include the timeframe for key decisions on future spectrum releases including in the 700MHz band and planned public sector spectrum sales and sharing opportunities. Apart from a passing reference to the EU objective of finding 1200MHz for mobile broadband, there seems to be missing the recognition that all this needs to feed into and from the EU's own rolling Radio Spectrum Policy Programme.

As regards spectrum management, the Government plans to make 'targeted amendments' to legislation to:

  • facilitate spectrum sharing though 'dynamic spectrum access' technologies;
  • give spectrum licensees incentives to surrender their rights to spectrum for other uses where it is not being fully used or needed;
  • notably, make it easier (apparently from the timeliness point of view) for the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom on spectrum matters so as to implement broader Government policy: this should raise a few eyebrows; and
  • enable Ofcom to fine licensees for licence breaches rather than simply threaten them with the more theoretical sanction of revocation.

Infrastructure deployment


Following on from new legislation in 2012, removing or suspending restrictions on planning, wayleaves, street works, overhead lines etc., even in areas of outstanding natural beauty, the Government looks to remove other barriers and 'red tape', including amending the Electronic Communications Code (following a recent Law Commission report), better facilitating laying cables in streets and streamlining the planning process for installation of mobile infrastructure, particularly 4G.

UK digital communications infrastructure


In a final flourish, the Government states it will work in partnership with communications industry experts (including 'leading thinkers') to develop by the end of 2014 a strategy for the UK's digital communications infrastructure from 2015-2025, with particular emphasis on technologies that 'can help boost connectivity in all parts of the UK'.

For further information please contact Colin Long