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How manifesto pledges will affect the future of UK telecoms

Out-Law Analysis | 28 Apr 2015 | 2:42 pm | 4 min. read

FOCUS: UK businesses need fast and reliable internet connections to compete in the global market. It is a need that has been recognised in the manifestos of the two main UK political parties hoping to govern the country after the forthcoming UK general election.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have provided clues as to what policies affecting the telecoms market they would pursue after 7 May.

The pledges are unsurprising but point to the increasing importance of mobile technologies.

The big picture ideas

According to the latest government report, 'superfast' broadband is now available to 75% of UK premises. 'Superfast' broadband refers to internet speeds of at least 30 megabits per second (mbps).

The coalition government's existing pledge is to ensure 95% of UK premises can access superfast broadband by 2017, and this pledge is reflected in the Conservative manifesto.

The Conservatives have also reiterated plans, first outlined in March, to ensure 'ultrafast' broadband is "available to nearly all UK premises as soon as practicable". Ultrafast broadband is internet speeds measuring at least 100 mbps. The Conservatives have not said what is meant by 'nearly all'.

Labour has said it will "ensure that all parts of the country benefit from affordable, high speed broadband" by the end of the next parliament. It has not defined what constitutes 'high speed broadband' in its manifesto.

Both parties have also recognised the increasing role that mobile technologies can play in helping to extend broadband coverage.

The Conservatives said it would oversee the reallocation of "more spectrum" from public sector to private sector use. The coalition government has already taken steps in this area, with spectrum owned by the Ministry of Defence due to be auctioned off by telecoms regulator Ofcom, possibly before the end of 2015.

Labour has said it would "work with the industry and the regulator to maximise private sector investment" on broadband and "deliver the mobile infrastructure needed to extend coverage and reduce ‘not spots’, including in areas of market failure".

Late last year, the four largest mobile network operators (MNOs) in the UK reached a "binding agreement" with the coalition government on measures designed to improve the scope of the coverage they offer to consumers. Under the agreement, MNOs guarantee voice and text coverage across 90% of the area of the UK by 2017 and that they will each full coverage, including data services, across at least 85% of the UK in the same timeframe.

In its manifesto, the Conservatives said they would hold the MNOs to their agreement and "continue to invest in mobile infrastructure to deliver coverage for voice calls and text messages for the final 0.3 – 0.4 per cent of UK premises that do not currently have it".

Central to the rollout of the infrastructure necessary to deliver better mobile coverage is reform to the Electronic Communications Code. Moves to include a new Code as part of the Infrastructure Act earlier this year were met with heavy criticism and prompted the coalition government to withdraw the plans. It subsequently launched a new consultation featuring fresh proposals for a new Code, which would set new rules governing the installation and maintenance of electronic communications infrastructure, such as mobile phone masts. The consultation closes on 30 April.

The Conservatives also said they want the UK to "be a world leader in the development of 5G" by "playing a key role in defining industry standards". '5G' refers to the next generation of mobile wireless internet technology.

In an update earlier this week, Ofcom announced (68-page / 592KB PDF) that it has identified some spectrum in the 6 to 100 GHz range that offers both "the best potential for use in the UK and harmonisation of 5G mobile services globally". However, it said "there is currently no technical consensus on which, if any, part(s) of the range between 6 and 100 GHz will be more or less suitable for 5G".

Work on the development of new 5G technologies is already underway in many countries in the world. The European Commission is already engaged in collaboration with South Korea on 5G standards and hopes to agree similar arrangements with Japan, China and the US.

What can we expect to happen after the election?

Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos spell out big picture ideas for the future of telecoms in the UK, but behind those ideas will sit layers of policy that will implement those plans.

From the auctioning off of more spectrum to reforms to the Electronic Communications Code, the underlying detail to the headline pledges will be contained in a variety of sources.

The direction and speed of travel will also be influenced by a range of factors, including how quickly the 'internet of things' phenomenon evolves. Developments in this space have the potential to influence spectrum allocation, for example.

Changes to EU law could also influence matters. According to the Financial Times, the European Commission is set to outline plans which would incentivise investment in high-speed broadband networks.

This could mean that moves to harmonise the allocation of spectrum across the EU and enable the sharing of spectrum or other telecoms infrastructure could be resurrected. Those plans were contained in the Commission's 'Connected Continent' proposals back in 2013 but have been dropped from the latest draft of the reforms which cover rules on roaming charges and net neutrality only.

The detail of policy post-election could also be influenced by advances in technology and commercial offerings. Some internet service providers are trialing new high-speed broadband services up to five and 10 times faster than the 'ultrafast' 100mbps rate defined by the coalition government at the moment. Further developments in this area could be used to benchmark future coverage and speed targets set by the next government.

Simon Colvin is an expert in telecoms and IT contracts at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com