British government cuts broadband "red tape"

The government has announced plans to fast track high speed broadband rollout, while UK citizens express a lack of confidence in promises to offer Europe’s fastest broadband by 2015.

Newly appointed culture secretary Maria Miller made promises today to cut red tape in order to enable the swift rollout of high speed broadband. 

“Superfast broadband is vital to secure our country’s future – to kick start economic growth and create jobs,” Miller said of the government’s plans to invest £680 million in broadband infrastructure. 

“We are putting in the essential infrastructure that will make UK businesses competitive, and sweeping away the red tape that is a barrier to economic recovery,” shesaid.

Measures to aid faster deployment of high speed broadband include the ability to install broadband cabinets in streets without the need for council approval, as well as reduced bureaucracy in laying street cables and under private land.

Prime Minister David Cameron stated that superfast broadband is “an essential building block of a growing economy, so we are cutting the red tape”.

In a Coalition cabinet reshuffle earlier this week Conservative Maria Miller was appointed at the helm of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and received backing from the prime minister to prioritise the roll out of high speed broadband. 

“I want the culture department rolling out broadband…This is a Government who mean business, and we have got the team to deliver it,” the Cameron said in parliament earlier this week.

The drive to attain the best broadband speeds marks a departure from earlier plans by former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt to deliver the “best” broadband network in Europe, formerly stating that “Our goal is simple: within this parliament we want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe”. 

Hunt said last month that the onus would now be on supplying the “fastest” broadband instead, claiming that “to be the best you need to be the fastest”.

Plans to upgrade broadband infrastructure involve increasing the rollout of fibre to the cabinet broadband, aiming for “headline access speed of greater than 24 Mbps, with no upper limit”, according to Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) minister Ed Vaizey.

However, according to a survey from thinkbroadband.com, 83 percent of 1,100 survey respondents in the UK think that plans to rollout the fastest broadband in Europe are unlikely to be achieved, with only five percent having faith in the government delivering on promises to achieve this.

Andrew Ferguson, editor of thinkbroadband.com, said that there is little optimism that the government can achieve its aims.

“The results illustrate that broadband users seek higher speeds but are not optimistic, with confidence in the government’s plans at an all time low,” Ferguson said. “The new culture secretary should take note of this and ensure they keep on track with the ambitious plans or risk lowering public confidence even further.”

Ferguson said that with Hunt out of the frame, the question now is whether his replacement, Maria Miller, will support his “bold goal”. 

He added that, with current UK broadband speeds lagging behind the rest of Europe, the government will need to propel the UK from the bottom of the pile “to the top of the broadband charts”.

Coalition slammed for scrapping Communications Bill consultation

Ministers have decided to scrap the Communications Green Paper, leading to criticisms over a lack of “coherent strategy” from shadow minister Helen Goodman.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport had intended to publish a Green Paper to highlight policy plans ahead of a bill being debated in Parliament.

It had previously been expected that the Green Paper would arrive during spring this year, allowing for a consultation ahead of a White Paper which would form the basis of the proposals.

However, DCMS announced that the Green Paper has now been ditched, and will be replaced with five seminars to discuss a series of proposals.

This will include maximising the value of broadband spectrum, looking at competition in the content market and investing in the television sector, and will inform a White Paper scheduled for early 2013.  A full bill is promised before the end of this parliament.

According to a statement from Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt there is “no need for a complete overhaul” of policy, as he highlighted intentions to place the UK as Europe’s “technology hub”. 

TechEye understands that there was mounting pressure that the Green Paper would be too lightweight, and this may have contributed to the Green Paper being scrapped. 

There has also been speculation that Hunt’s role in the Leveson Inquiry has been a distraction from the Communications Bill.

Shadow Minister Helen Goodman told TechEye that the decision to scrap bill shows a lack of direction for communications policy.

“This is absolutely pathetic,” Goodman said. “It is because they have got no coherent strategy for communications in this country.”

“Jeremy Hunt has not put his mind to it because he has been completely focused watching his back at the Leveson inquiry,” Goodman said.  

Goodman believes that without more comprehensive consultation on the Green Paper, the communications industry will struggle to boost the UK’s economy.

“It is a complete disgrace that he can’t get his act together to put forward a proper Green Paper that will give people – beyond people invited to the seminar – the opportunity to contribute to policy  formation in an area which is vital for the economy, and vital for the quality of our cultural life,” Goodman said.

Games get age-12 certification as part of government clampdown

The government has announced a toughening up on video games laws, with retailers potentially facing prison sentences for selling to children.

A revamped classification system has been announced which will see all games regulated by the Europe-wide PEGI scheme.

This will mean that the British Board of Film Classification will no longer have input on age rating classifications, with the video game specific PEGI making the decisions.  The certification will be enforced by the Video Standards Council (VSC) in the UK.

The main change will be that a new ‘12’ rating will be put in place, and if retailers don’t abide by the rules then they could face being thrown behind bars.  

Retailers will have until July to train up staff to deal with new changes, or face serious jail time as well as potentially unlimited fines for supplying games without an age rating.

According to Culture minister Ed Vaizey the new system will “benefit both parents and industry by creating a stronger, simpler age-rating system”.

“It will give parents greater confidence that their children can only get suitable games while we are creating a simpler system for industry having their games age-rated,” he said in a statement.

The move by the government to more rigidly enforce gaming classification comes as video game content is under increased attack from politicians.

Conservative MP Keith Vaz continued his campaign to increase censorship in video games by appealing directly to PEGI to do more to restrict content.  

Vaz has spearheaded calls to clampdown on violent content, tabling a number of early day motions in parliament to tighten regulation, with a particular vendetta against the Call of Duty series.

Lords demand end to extortionate EU data roaming fees

Members of the House of Lords have demanded that extortionate EU data roaming fees are tackled with a “better deal” for service users.

A Lords Committee has today written to Communications Minister Ed Vaizey to outline proposals to lower bills for those stung by mobile charges abroad.

The Committee said that the current charging structure is “unacceptably high”, which makes smartphone users think twice about using their phone lest they get a bill for more than the cost of the handset and the holiday combined.

The move comes in the wake of the EU’s own directive on the bank-account draining problem, while Ofcom called for worldwide caps to stop Brits abroad from getting stung should they venture further than Magaluf this summer.   Even carrier Three spoke out against the eye-watering charges made to customers.

While the likes of Vodafone are already targeting phone users with cheaper data deals when abroad, many are subject to fees of £3 for a measly megabyte of data when in sunnier climes.

The Lords committee also twigged that this is clearly bad for business.  No one in their right mind would use a smartphone for services such as maps, or say finding a local restaurant, when abroad because of the cost, despite smartphones clearly coming into their own in such circumstances.

Unfortunately, the committee chair Baroness O’Cathain admits that industry players are unlikely to do so willingly, despite shooting themselves in the foot over the potential revenues in making services more accessible.

Should the cost be lower then surely it wouldn’t just be those forgetting to turn off data roaming after landing that would make use of such services regularly. With this in mind, caps are demanded which benefit both phone users and companies.

The proposals, written up after hearing evidence from consumer groups and phone companies, indicate that price caps “are a means, not the end, to a truly competitive marketplace”.

Further proposals demand that more is done to inform customers of any changes, and to keep phone users at the “heart of all developments”.

Education secretary breaks silence on computer science

Education secretary Michael Gove has broken his silence on pushing for computer science in the curriculum, though departmental spokespeople say that there is no commitment.

The call for teaching computer science in schools received a boost with the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the Livingston Review last week.  In fact, culture secretary Ed Vaizey has been vocal in his support for computer sciences, as well as universities minister David Willets.

This follows pressure from the likes of Google exec Eric Schmidt who raised concerns that British kids were not being told how to write programs.  Indeed, despite the government harping on about Tech City, it can’t count on a future generation of Zuckerberg-like entrepreneurs if all they’re taught is browsing the web and mess around on Office.

The man in charge of the British curriculum, Michael Gove, has so far kept schtum.  Gove’s reticence to put computer sciences in the curriculum has always been a mystery to TechEye, which has it on good authority that geeky Gove is a Dungeons & Dragons fan who was blocked from competing in a departmental sports day.

But mounting pressure, and what seems to be some government commitment to the cause, had him start to broach the subject.

Speaking to the Schools Network in Birmingham, Gove reacted to criticisms that he had failed to respond to calls for important changes to the curriculum.

“There is a perception by some that my department isn’t especially concerned about such things,” he said in a speech. “That we care more about Tennyson than technology. That our interest is in Ibsen, not iTunes. That we’re more Kubla Khan than Khan Academy.

“This couldn’t be further from the truth. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that our school system not only prepares pupils for this changing world, but also embraces the technological advances which are transforming education.

“My department is thinking hard about this and we’ll be saying more in the New Year.”

Gove also said he would like children to “engage with truly cutting edge hardware, like 3D printers, or learn the fundamentals of programming with their own single-board computers, like the Raspberry Pi”.

He also told children at Catmose College that “what we should have is computer science in the future”.

He continued: “How it fits into the curriculum is something that we need to talk to scientists, to experts in coding, and to young people about to make sure that that part of what happens in the school which deals with technology and computing is relevant.”

TechEye approached the Department for Education to find out what plans there are to actually implement computer sciences.

We were told that “as far as firm plans in place there are none at the moment”. 

“There is currently a review of the National Curriculum;” a spokesperson told TechEye, “maths, science and PE are considered part of the core curriculum, but everything is part of the review.”

“In terms of actual plans we will have to watch this space.”

So whether Gove does indeed plan action, or whether he is placating those calling for change with some timely words remains to be seen.

Curriculum under review for computer science in schools

Government Minister David Willets has responded to calls to promote computer sciences with a trial which will focus on teaching programming skills.

Willetts responded to calls from Google‘s Eric Schmidt to start teaching programming skills to kids in the UK.  Last month Schmidt lashed out at the government about students learning how to use programs rather than creating them.

Another Minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Ed Vaizey, has also spoken out about the need for more support for computer sciences.  TechEye also spoke to programmer David Braben, of Elite fame, who made fresh calls for changes to the curriculum to support teaching creation rather than consumption of software.

Now the ‘Behind the Screens’ initiative will trial in schools across England with the aim of encouraging children to develop software and computational principles.

Willetts also said that he wants to see 21st century skills in school, and that includes writing programs.

In terms of a wider roll out of computer science subjects, the Department for Education told TechEye a curriculum review is currently looking at ways to incorporate ICT on a wider scale.

“The National Curriculum is currently being reviewed,” a spokesperson told us. “As part of this process we had a call for evidence to which all stakeholders were invited to make submissions.  These are currently being analysed.” 

“The Review will consider whether all other subjects (currently part of the National Curriculum) should remain so and design statutory/non statutory programmes of study for each subject to be taught in maintained schools from September 2014; both ICT and Computer Science are being reviewed as part of this process.”

“ICT evolves at a rate far faster than any curriculum can – that’s why we are stripping the curriculum back to core knowledge, allowing schools greater flexibility to adapt the subjects to the needs of the their pupils.”

The curriculum review has also involved meeting with the members of the ‘computing community’:

“Throughout the National Curriculum Review process Ministers and officials from the Department have had several meetings with representatives of the computing community,” the spokesperson said, “including Microsoft, BCS (The Chartered Institute for IT) and Computing for Schools to discuss the potential benefits of developing Computer Science as a subject, underlining its importance to the Government.”

Jeremy Hunt calls for end to legal action over 4G auction

A leaked speech has shown that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt will push mobile operators to stay away from legal action over the 4G auction process.

Following a recent announcement that Ofcom will push back the auction process to mid 2012 as it continues to work on auction terms, Hunt has urged operators to stop squabbling and get on with it.

The speech demands that “we press on as quickly as possible with the 4G auction”, mentioning that Sweden and other European nations have completed their own bidding processes a long time ago.

It is said that Hunt will argue that any delays to the issuing of 4G licenses will not be in the “national interest”, and warn mobile operators away from litigation.

Hunt will demand mobile phone operators “put aside competitive differences” and “work together… to make this happen”, writes the Telegraph.

A host of mobile operators have been dragging their feet over the process, with legal threats ranging from the thinly veiled to threatening to bring the matter to an EU court as O2 has done.

But as MPs have highlighted the delays are getting ridiculous, and are likely to cost the country millions of pounds.

Interestingly though the government has been reticent to actually stick its neck out and get involved. Though Hunt has not advocated any legislative measures be taken against mobile operators to ensure that the auction goes ahead, it does appear to be a significantly more forceful demand top get the ball rolling.

So attempting to tackle the subject head on at the Royal Television Society’s Cambridge Convention is certainly an step up from DCMS ministers fielding questions in Parliament on the subject.

Indeed up until this point DCMS has been very happy to downplay its role to us and keep the focus on Ofcom. In fact DCMS has told us repeatedly that this is “not something for us to be involved in” so we reckon this seems like something of a change of heart.

We approached O2, one of the firms which has made legal threats in the past, for a response to the Minister’s speech. O2 was did not want to comment directly on Hunt’s speech but highlighted that there were still certain of Ofcom’s proposals which it does not agree with.

“There were elements of the Ofcom’s initial proposals that we support and other elements where we believe Ofcom needs to simplify,” we were told in a statement.

“This is still part of the consultation process and we are currently waiting for Ofcom’s views on the number of responses they received earlier this year.”

“At this stage we see no reason why a successful auction cannot be delivered next year as planned.”

ED Vaizey takes back seat on 4G auction delays

Communications minister Ed Vaizey declared in Parliament that he will take a back seat over the delay to the 4G auction process.

The Tory minister was questioned over what action he will take in the face of growing frustration about the spectrum allocation delay.

Fellow Conservative MP Andrew Percy asked the Department for Culture, Media and Sport head what involvement he has had in ensuring mobile operators agree on the 4G spectrum by mid-2012.

He also asked whether he has broached the subject of statutory powers to “direct Ofcom to proceed with an of the 800MHz and 2,600Mhz spectrum in the event of a legal challenge”.

Despite threats from O2 to take legal action to an EU court, the minister said that no fingers had been lifted to ensure that a 4G network rolls out in the face of legal action.

“I have had no discussions with Ofcom about a possible further direction in the event of a legal challenge to their proposals,” Vaizey said.  A rather relaxed attitude for a Minister who has continually put his weight behind the importance of mobile and internet technology in the past.  

Vaizey did say that he had been approached by operators and Ofcom, but had taken little action to actually push forward with the auction process.

“The operators have expressed their concerns with the Ofcom proposals to me and I have stressed to them the Government’s wish to see this auction take place as early as possible in 2012.”

Stern words, but little reassurance that the auction process won’t descend into a bloodbath, as expected, with all quarters trying to grab what they can.

As Tom Watson MP has pointed out, there isn’t much time to wait around. As well the cost potential cost to the Exchequer which Watson highlights, it means falling further behind countries such as Sweden and the US where 4G plans are already going ahead.  This has led to Watson himself demanding Vaizey use legislative powers to keep the 4G auction moving.

TechEye attempted to contact Watson for his views on Vaizey’s lack of action but have not received a reply.

As Vaizey points out, “Ofcom were directed to take a number of actions relating to spectrum in December 2010” by the government, so surely Vaizey has some stake in ensuring that  a 4G roll out does not move later into 2013. 

Unfortunately that is not the view of DCMS, despite its minister clearly expressing involvement in a written answer.

TechEye asked what action the government could take but were stonewalled by Paul Conroy at DCMS.  It appears as far as the government is concerned this is Ofcom’s mess and the public shouldn’t hold its breath for ministerial action.

DCMS turns blind eye to Chinese espionage fears

Despite concerns raised on many fronts the government appears to be uninterested in the security threat posed by Chinese telecoms firms.

Techeye reported earlier this week that BT had begun a partnership with ZTE to develop fixed line, mobile and wireless communications technology.

But despite significant concerns raised both here and in the US over links between private firms such as Huawei and ZTE and the Chinese military potentially leaving countries open to either espionage or interference in networks it appears that the government is unfussed about the dangers.

Chinese telecoms firms have a reputation for some rather alarming practices, whether they have been fully proved or not.  They have attracted the attention of security officials in the past here, as well as in many other countries – with the US taking a tough stance on attempts by such firms to position themselves in its domestic market.

One security expert told Techeye that the industry and indeed the government should be doing more to keep an eye on the threat posed by such outfits.

Graham Cluley of Sophos said taht it would be wise for BT to discuss with their peers in the global telecoms industry and other authorities what concerns they might have about firms like ZTE.  Then they should make an informed decision about whether they feel comfortable proceeding with a partnership.  .

BT was reticent to talk about the subject earlier this week and it seems that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, home of Communications Minister Ed Vaizey, were not taking the warnings seriously.

After a substantial consultation with its policy officials on the issue the department decided that “there is no role for DCMS” in commercial business such as this, despite warnings from the Joint Intelligence Committee to ministers in 2009 about this very issue.

While the deal between BT and ZTE does not appear to offer any imminent danger, what is alarming is that there seems to be little interest in monitoring this potential danger by the industry or the government.

It might be one of those cases that secret data from a snooped on phone ends up in China and everyone acts all surprised.  Other than us of course.  We will be linking to this story and saying “we told you so.”

UK to release 500MHz of publicly owned spectrum

The Department for Culture Media and Sport has announced plans to free up 500 MHz of publicly held spectrum over the next 10 years, to cope with demand from the rise in mobile communications.

A paper released today states how the government will seek to provide the private sector with a significant amount.

“This is a long-term project to ensure industry is able to meet the growing demand for services that need spectrum,” said Communications Minister Ed Vaizey.

“The use of smartphones and mobile broadband is set to increase rapidly. Releasing more spectrum over the next decade will be essential if industry is to meet that growing demand.

“We must ensure the public sector uses this valuable resource as efficiently as possible. If the public sector does not need it, then it should be released so businesses can use it to grow.”

It had been announced as part of the Spending Review that the government would seek to dish out 500 MHz of the most useful broadband under the 5GHz bandwidth which can be used for mobile networks and the like.

Spectrum above this is generally only used for space and satellite communications and for David Icke to keep in touch with his intergalactic chums.

According to DCMS demand for spectrum at sub-5 GHz frequencies is growing and it is “critical for innovation and growth that they are used as efficiently as possible”.

At the moment the plans are only at the stage of identifying possible areas to free up spectrum, of which DCMS believes the government holds over of the best frequencies, with the Ministry of Defence looking at the 2310-2390 MHz and 3400-3600 MHz bands.

Three other bands at 2700-3100 MHz, 3100-3400 MHz and 4400-5000 MHz are also being looked at for further investigation, with a further five bands above the 1 GHz mark and five below that could potentially help push towards the 500 MHz target.

The department acknowledged that extensive work still lies ahead in how services which currently occupy some of these bandwidths will be moved to another spectrum band.