Wednesday, May 26, 2010

ConDems condemn Becta

A shame that one of the new Government's first actions is to close Becta, the UK agency "leading the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning". Becta's statement on the planned closure is here. In an interesting counterpoint, a recent article in Wired (published prior to the announcement of the election) described in great detail the extent to which the Conservative party was harnessing technology to support its electoral ambitions. We'll have to wait and see how the new administration chooses to address the huge potential of technology in general and broadband in particular to support teaching and learning in the light of this week's announcement.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Digital Agenda for Europe

The BBC report the EU's plans to ensure that all European households have broadband speeds of at least 30Mbps by 2020, deliver universal broadband coverage by 2013 and get half of Europeans using public services and shopping online by 2015, as part of the Digital Agenda for Europe (one of the seven flagship initiatives of the Europe 2020 Strategy). As part of this, an additional report on the economic impact of ICT is available here and details of the overarching Europe 2020 framework are here.

Some extracts from the Digital Agenda Communication:
"More needs to be done to ensure the roll-out and take-up of broadband for all, at increasing speeds, through both fixed and wireless technologies, and to facilitate investment in the new very fast open and competitive internet networks that will be the arteries of a future economy. Our action needs to be focused on providing the right incentives to stimulate private investment, complemented by carefully targeted public investments, without re-monopolising our networks, as well as improving spectrum allocation."
“The Europe 2020 Strategy has underlined the importance of broadband deployment to promote social inclusion and competitiveness in the EU. It restated the objective to bring basic broadband to all Europeans by 2013 and seeks to ensure that, by 2020, (i) all Europeans have access to much higher internet speeds of above 30 Mbps and (ii) 50% or more of European households subscribe to internet connections above 100 Mbps.”
This is of particular interest in relation to developing UK broadband policy:
“Without strong public intervention there is a risk of a sub-optimal outcome, with fast broadband networks concentrated in a few high-density zones with significant entry costs and high prices. The spill-over benefits created by such networks for the economy and society justify public policies guaranteeing universal broadband coverage with increasing speeds. For this purpose, the Commission intends to adopt a Communication outlining a common framework within which EU and national policies should be developed to meet the Europe 2020 targets. These policies should, in particular, lower the costs of broadband deployment in the entire EU territory, ensuring proper planning and coordination and reducing administrative burdens. For instance, the competent authorities should ensure: that public and private civil engineering works systematically provide for broadband networks and in-building wiring; clearing of rights of way; and mapping of available passive infrastructure suitable for cabling.”
This is of interest in relation to the potential of re-using education broadband infrastructure, as alluded to in this previous post:
“...national, EU and EIB funding instruments should be used for well targeted broadband investments in areas where the business case is currently weak and, therefore, only such focused intervention can render investments sustainable... To foster the deployment of NGA and to encourage market investment in open and competitive networks the Commission will adopt a NGA Recommendation based on the principles that (i) investment risk should be duly taken into account when establishing cost-oriented access prices, (ii) National Regulatory Authorities should be able to impose the most appropriate access remedies in each case, allowing a reasonable investment pace for alternative operators while taking into account the level of competition in any given area and (iii) co-investments and risk-sharing mechanisms should be promoted.”
The approach to the "open internet" issue seems very sensible and balanced, following on from Neelie Kroes' previous announcements in this regard:
"The Commission will also monitor closely the implementation of the new legislative provisions on the open and neutral character of the internet, which safeguard users' rights to access and distribute information online and ensure transparency about traffic management. The Commission will launch a public consultation before summer 2010 as part of its more general commitment to report by the end of the year, in the light of market and technological developments, on whether additional guidance is required, in order to secure the basic objectives of freedom of expression, transparency, the need for investment in efficient and open networks, fair competition and openness to innovative business models."
And on the subject of money to support all this, Key Action 8 calls for a "a common framework for actions at EU and Member State to meet the Europe 2020 broadband targets", which will include rationalising EU funding for NGA and a new spectrum policy. EU member states should:
  • Develop and make operational national broadband plans by 2012 that meet the coverage and speed and take-up targets defined in Europe 2020, using public financing in line with EU competition and state aid rules, the Commission will report annually on progress as part of the Digital Agenda governance;
  • Take measures, including legal provisions, to facilitate broadband investment, such as making sure that civil engineering works systematically involve potential investors, clearing rights of way, mapping available passive infrastructure suitable for cabling and upgrading in-building wiring;
  • Use fully the Structural and Rural Development Funds that are already earmarked for investment in ICT infrastructures and services;
  • Implement the European Spectrum Policy Programme, so as to ensure the coordinated allocation of the spectrum needed to meet the target of 100% coverage of 30mbps internet by 2020, and the NGA Recommendation.
The broadband targets are summarized in annex 2:
  • Basic broadband for all by 2013: basic broadband coverage for 100% of EU citizens. (Baseline: Total DSL coverage (as % of the total EU population) was at 93% in December 2008.)
  • Fast broadband by 2020: broadband coverage at 30 Mbps or more for 100% of EU citizens. (Baseline: 23% of broadband subscriptions were with at least 10 Mbps in January 2010.)
  • Ultra-fast broadband by 2020: 50% of European households should have subscriptions above 100Mbps. (No baseline)
BT has recently published its future ambitions for NGA, as reported by the BBC and Fierce Telecom, but it remains to be seen how far these will dovetail with the EU's 2020 objectives. Over to you, Mr Vaizey?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Coalition publishes broadband intentions

Here's what the LibDem/Conservative full coalition agreement (published yesterday) has to say (page 14, bottom right) about broadband:
"We will introduce measures to ensure the rapid roll-out of superfast broadband across the country. We will ensure that BT and other infrastructure providers allow the use of their assets to deliver such broadband, and we will seek to introduce superfast broadband in remote areas at the same time as in more populated areas. If necessary, we will consider using the part of the TV licence fee that is supporting the digital switchover to fund broadband in areas that the market alone will not reach."
Re-use of assets, especially those owned and operated by "other infrastructure providers", strikes a chord with the potential to extend and consolidate existing education broadband infrastructure to serve areas and communities that are un- or under-served by the current broadband market.

In terms of funding, the 50p landline tax is no more, but the intention to use the underspend from digital switchover monies remains (as set out on page 57 of the final Digital Britain report), or at least is still under consideration, along with a contribution from the Strategic Investment Fund, as described on page 68 of the Pre-Budget Report published in December 2009. The Fund was also mentioned in the Budget Report published in March 2010.

Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) is the body charged with taking both the universal service commitment and next generation access forward, and, as suspectedEd Vaizey has been appointed as the new minister for broadband, as a joint business and culture minister (see this coverage from the BBC).

Friday, May 07, 2010

FCC goes public on broadband regulatory plans

Following extensive speculation, the FCC has set out the way it intends to address the issues created by the recent Comcast case in a statement by Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Contrary to previous reports (see this previous post), the FCC has come out in favour of reclassifying broadband as a Title II service, albeit with only a handful of Title II provisions applying to broadband: only the transmission component of a broadband access service would be recognised as a telecommunications service, as opposed to its current status as an information service.

So, the FCC is not seeking to regulate providers in relation to, for example, web-based services and applications, e-commerce sites and online content: "FCC policies should not include regulating Internet content, constraining reasonable network management practices of broadband providers, or stifling new business models or managed services that are pro-consumer and foster innovation and competition."

This so-called "third way" (sounds eerily familiar?) would, according to the FCC, ensure greater regulatory certainty, protect and empower consumers, restore the previous status quo and consensus that existed prior to the Comcast ruling, and, perhaps most importantly, prevent regulatory overreach: " approach consistent with the longstanding consensus regarding the limited but essential role that government should play with respect to broadband communications." The FCC will shortly launch a consultation on their proposals.

Reactions, as ever, are polarised and predictable: pro-consumer groups have welcomed the announcement, while industry has objected strongly. FierceCable predict "a slew of lawsuits and legal action that will tie up any kind of regulation for the foreseeable future." The FT (White House unveils push on broadband rules) report that "telecommunications and cable groups affected by the ruling are not expected to see any silver lining in the FCC’s allegedly “light touch” approach. “You can call it an ice cream sundae, it is still Title II,” said one industry insider in Washington."

In a separate article (Internet groups eye fight on tighter rules), the paper goes on to report that providers will mount a legal challenge to the FCC's proposals, which opponents regard as a "job-killing big government scheme":
"Verizon and AT&T signalled they would mount a legal challenge against the move by the Federal Communications Commission...Republican lawmakers attacked the prospect of tighter rules for cable and telecommunications companies, saying the move represented nothing less than a “government takeover of the internet”...Tom Tauke, Verizon’s executive vice-president of public affairs, on Thursday said the FCC’s approach was “legally unsupported”, a statement that foreshadowed a likely legal challenge against the decision."
Intriguingly, the FT (Congress wants tougher regime for ISPs) also reported that the statements against reclassification previously attributed to the FCC (see this previous post again) may in fact have been leaked as a "trial balloon" in order to "rally liberals to increase pressure on the FCC chairman." The same article also reports that Senator Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Henry Waxman wrote to the FCC Chairman on 5th May (the day before the FCC's statement was released), encouraging consideration of a change in classification "provided that doing so entails a light regulatory touch". Perhaps the previous FCC statement was a stalking horse?

It remains to be seen whether the FCC's proposals turn out to be as apocalyptic as industry opponents claim. It's already had an impact on share prices, prompting heavy falls in cable and telecommunications stocks, again according to the FT (Tougher internet regulation alarms investors). The BBC reports on division within the ranks of the FCC on this issue, as the two Republican FCC commissioners (out of a total of five) both oppose the plan, saying in a joint statement that "this dramatic step to regulate the internet is unnecessary".

Given the facts of the FCC's original grievance against Comcast (see this previous post), I know exactly where my allegiance lies. But one thing's for sure: it's going to be a long, difficult and expensive fight.

Seconds away...

Brazil and Italy embark on ambitious broadband projects

The Brazilian government is to invest around BRL 13 billion (approximately $7.3bn) to reduce the costs and boost access to broadband internet services among low-income households across the country, according to TelecomPaperReuters report that the former state telecom monopoly (Telebras) will be revived as part of the plan, to operate a backbone network comprising 23,000km of fibre optic cable. The FT (Telecoms: Country in a hurry to get completely wired) offer further detail:
"Mr Alvarez (co-ordinator of the Brazil’s digital inclusion programme) says the government will take 21,000km of state-owned fibre optic cables already built by Eletrobras, which are at present idle, and sell concessions to various companies around the country. “This will be negotiated on a big open table, with all the operators. It will be a great national arrangement between public and private concessions,” he explains. He hopes to revive Telebras, the long dormant old state entity, to run the market for the project. Some think this might be rather difficult. Analysts say reviving the entity could pose legal problems, because of long-outstanding liabilities. Mr Alvarez says the 31,000km of fibre that should be available by 2012 will be able to reach 87.5 per cent of the population. And, as in the case of voice services, mobile broadband may plug holes left by the plan."
Developments in Italy are commercially- rather than government-led. From the FT (Tel Italia rivals plan €2.5bn broadband network):
"Three of Italy’s leading telecoms companies are set to announce a €2.5bn plan to build a superfast broadband network in 15 cities...The €2.5bn network plan involving Vodafone, Wind and Fastweb could give the three companies a better opportunity to compete with Telecom Italia for customers, based on the quality of the services they offer. Although Vodafone’s Italian unit and Wind are mobile-focused businesses, they also offer fixed-line services like Fastweb."
In comparison, Telecom Italia (apparently the most heavily indebted of Europe's former fixed-line phone monopolies) plans to spend €700m by the end of 2012 on fibre infrastructure that will reach 1.3m buildings in 13 cities.

Australia: NBN is "achievable and affordable", even without Telstra

The Australian Government yesterday released the National Broadband Network (NBN) Implementation Study which confirms that high-speed broadband for all Australians is achievable, and can be built on a financially viable basis with affordable prices for consumers, at a price lower than initially envisaged.

From the accompanying press release:
"...while infrastructure sharing and other commercial arrangements with existing telecommunications companies can benefit the project, the NBN will be financially viable even without the participation of Telstra...Fibre to the premise is widely accepted as the optimal future proof technology with wireless broadband a complementary rather than a substitute technology...the NBN can provide consumers with faster speeds and better download limits for comparable prices to what they pay in the market today...the NBN business model establishes that taxpayers are paid back their investment with a modest return by year 15 of the project on the basis that privatisation is completed."
Which suggests that the NBN won't be a public asset in perpetuity? TelecomPaper confirm this: "The report authors also recommend that the government keep the network in public hands until the roll-out is completed, to ensure it meets policy objectives." And TeleGeography report that Telstra has until the end of June 2010 to finalise a deal on its participation in the  project. Comments on the implementation study are invited by 27th May 2010.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

More speculation on the FCC's future direction

Two articles in the Washington Post offer some insight into where the FCC might go next, following the recent court ruling against it. The first suggests that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could become "a more powerful watchdog for Internet users" if proposals to expand its ability to create rules come to fruition:
"The version of regulatory overhaul legislation passed by the House would allow the FTC to issue rules on a fast track and permit the agency to impose civil penalties on companies that hurt consumers. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz has argued in favor of bolstering his agency's enforcement ability. "If we had a deterrent, a bigger stick to fine malefactors, that would be helpful," Leibowitz told Fox News last week. That provision to strengthen the FTC is absent from the financial overhaul legislation before the Senate. Some observers, however, expect the measure to be included when the House and Senate versions are combined."
Commentary from Fierce Telecom:
"As expected, the proposed power shift has the usual parties scrambling to either block it or push it forward. If it gets through, it's possible the FTC could take up the charge for net neutrality for an FCC that was wounded - some say mortally - by a court decision that said it had no power to punish Comcast for throttling Internet speeds for bandwidth hogs."
I think Comcast's actions were rather more complex than "throttling Internet speeds for bandwidth hogs" though, see this previous post. The second and more recent Washington Post article (also picked up by the BBC) reports that FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has indicated that he wants to keep broadband services deregulated:
"...sources said Genachowski thinks "reclassifying" broadband to allow for more regulation would be overly burdensome on carriers and would deter investment. But they said he also thinks the current regulatory framework would lead to constant legal challenges to the FCC's authority every time it attempted to pursue a broadband policy."
The FCC is expected to respond formally to the court ruling soon. It will be interesting to see how the agency proposes to balance providing the necessary leadership with not over-burdening carriers.