Westminster View: How Mobile World Congress can help the UK create a regulatory framework for the digital age

The UK government just needs to look to last week's Mobile World Congress for ideas on how to develop a regulatory framework that will support the communications landscape of the future, suggests Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for innovation and science.


Another week marked by the non-appearance of the much delayed Communications Green Paper.

We understand that it is now due out at the end of March. If that is in fact the last week of March, when Parliament is not sitting, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) will lay itself open to accusations of extreme cowardice in seeking to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.

More likely it will be the week before, Budget week, where it might grab a few seconds of attention between Budget coverage and the Easter break.

But let us not be churlish. Right now, civil servants are frantically redrafting text and seeking final sign-off from the great and the good at DCMS and beyond.

As a consequence, they may not have been following last week's GSMA Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. That would be a pity. MWC is often the crucible of tomorrow's big ICT idea. And the story coming out of DCMS is that this is a green paper desperately in search of an idea.

It appears that we will be presented with a document that fixes a few tactical issues and addresses a number of short-term concerns. A green paper that may 'consider' some of the incredible communication technology transformations, the extensive behavioural changes and the revolutions in markets and business models that are happening – but will say absolutely nothing.

Let us look back 10 years to the development of the 2003 Communications Act, written by, amongst others, Ed Richards, current CEO of Ofcom, and knocked into shape by Lord David Putnam. It certainly had a big idea - convergence.

It looked into the future, asked what the communications industries would look like around now and decided that the key theme of the next 10 years would be convergence - convergence of platforms, industries and services.

So it set about designing a regulatory framework that would work when voice and data travelled over the same network, when television companies offered phone calls, when phone companies offered audiovisual content and when your search engines sold you your groceries.

And so Ofcom was created, a converged regulator for a converged world.

And it worked - more or less. Convergence happened and Ofcom had the power, more or less, to deal with it. But a lot of other things happened too, and the Communications Act is certainly looking ropey about the edges. Ten years is the communications equivalent of a geological era – tectonic plates have shifted. It is the right time for a green paper.

But it has to say something. We need a vision of where we are heading, not a collection of disparate measures and fluffy words.
I could not get to MWC, but ex-colleagues who were there have shared with me their thoughts. So here, free of charge for DCMS, are three overarching themes that could be used to set out a vision for Comms 2022: all online, all mobile, all in the cloud.

All online

In the UK, broadband take-up is now more than 75 percent and who can doubt that by 2022 it will be ubiquitous? Worldwide there are now approximately 6.6 billion mobile devices connected, of which one billion are smartphones, forecast to grow to 2.5 billion by 2015.

With the global population at more than seven billion, that still leaves around five billion in need of access to the mobile internet. Keynote speakers at MWC 2012 sought to address this, with calls for the GSMA to develop a low-cost (under $50) smartphone, just as a few years ago the GSMA led a similar initiative to develop a feature phone under $20.

What might that mean? Well, within the UK, achieving the first truly universal network in our history - gas, electric and water don't get everywhere - will have profound implications.

For a start everyone will be a global, digital content producer as well as a consumer, and digital literacy, broadband capacity, business and government will all have to adjust. If we have a monopoly in broadband infrastructure, as looks increasingly likely, that monopoly will wield huge power. GSMA is forecasting 24 billion machine-to-machine (M2M) devices by 2020, though Ericsson are sticking with their headline?grabbing forecast from last year's MWC of 50 billion devices by 2020.

So all online means devices as well as people and that will have huge consequences for society, behaviour, competition, the economy and governance at every level.

All mobile

The figures above suggest everyone will be connected on the move, and doing increasingly complex things. This complexity was emphasised by the new smart devices announced at MWC 2012. Many were based on quad?core - as opposed to single- or dual-core processors.

PC processor suppliers such as Intel with its Atom chip are trying to break into mobile smart devices dominated by ARM. But regardless of who is supplying the chips it seems clear the distinction between fixed and mobile is likely to erode. Spectrum, as a consequence, will become even more valuable and its geographical fragmentation even harder to justify.

All in the cloud

The cloud is really starting to happen now as both fixed and mobile broadband networks become fast enough to access resources – content, services, processing power, storage and infrastructure – remotely rather than having them held locally on the consumer's device.

This offers the economic advantage of reduced costs through shared resources, so we should see more sophisticated services more widely available. The industry's ability to gather evermore data about user behaviour means these services will be individualised to user needs. However, 'Big Data' as this is called, also raises privacy and human rights concerns, made more worrying if competition is limited to a small number of big players.

So all online, all mobile, all in the cloud. I'm not expecting the green paper to deliver an overarching comprehensive narrative that unites the key themes of the communications revolution in a few pithy paragraphs. Some talk about the 'Martini' experience - 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere'. I don't believe that lends enough gravitas to the quality, nature and accountability of the services accessed and the implications for society, and indeed democracy.

But what is certain is that we need a green paper with a vision of the future, one which both inspires and informs.

Here's hoping!

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