Future visions for digital

thumb-large-5 agendaNi looks at the potential way ahead for digital communications over the next 10 years.

Rapid changes in technology can make the future appear unpredictable but a new Whitehall paper assesses the emerging trends and considers how these might develop in the coming decade.

The consultation document on digital communications infrastructure was jointly published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Treasury and submissions were received in August and September. Rather than setting out a draft strategy, the departments asked the industry for its views on what action should be taken.

An overall vision for the UK’s digital future was set out in the ‘Connectivity, Content and Consumers’ paper, launched by DCMS in July 2013. This proposed a long-term digital communications infrastructure strategy, over the next 10-15 years, which would meet consumer needs and also maintain competitiveness in an increasingly globalised world.

The final strategy will cover: how the UK can take advantage of the sector’s growth potential; facilitation and encouragement of private sector investment; the regulatory framework; and the role of government.

Government, for example, may have a role in defining the desired outcome on which the private sector is expected to deliver.

The paper offers a broad assessment of the UK’s existing communications networks i.e. universal fixed telephony, near-universal current generation broadband coverage and a “thriving” broadcasting infrastructure.

By 2017, the Government hopes that 95 per cent of households will receive superfast broadband. 4G coverage in the USA stands at 98 per cent of the population. EE hopes the reach that target by the end of 2014 while Telefonica, Vodafone and Three are aiming to follow by December 2015.

The scenarios imagine life in 2025 but it is emphasised that these do not constitute official forecasts, predictions or preferences. Instead, they look at “possible courses of events” that can affect the sector and stakeholders were also encourage to put forward their own scenarios.

Looking ahead, users will need more bandwidth as data consumption continues to rise and people will increasingly expect to receive access to services and applications “on the move”. Resilience and reliability will become as important as availability and speed. All of this will take place in a context of continued and rapid technological change.

The current regulatory framework – under the Communications Act 2003 – focuses on promoting competition and removing barriers to investment. Those twin aims will remain in place. A good environment for investment has a stable regulatory regime, low deployment costs, revenue and ongoing certainty in government strategy.

Regulation is heavily influenced by EU law – the next formal review by the Commission and the regulators is due to take place in mid-2016.

Cable coverage is lower than in the USA and some parts of Europe. This reduces investment and competition on the national communications network, relative to those countries, but this is partly offset by low prices and consumer satisfaction with 4G and broadband services.

A universal service obligation for providing affordable voice line and functional internet access (narrowband) is binding on BT and KCOM, which covers Hull. The city’s municipal exchange had been owned independently by the council since 1904 and was privatised in 1999.

This obligation is self-funded but third party funding is permitted under European regulations. Broadband is not specifically included due to the low level of coverage in some EU member states and the expectation that superfast broadband will reduce that digital divide. The UK’s universal service commitment on current generation broadband (2Mbps) is not legally binding but policy may change in the future if some regions are being underserved.

Scenario #1

• Users’ digital competence rises but many of their skills do not keep up

• Audio-visual content remains largest consumer of household bandwidth

• Increased storage capacity on set-top television boxes

• Steady movement from 3G to 4G

• Data consumption initially increases before stabilising

• Citizen transactions increasingly move online

Scenario #2

• General demand and levels of expectation rise

• People expect access and a good user experience at all times and places

• Continued shift towards smartphones and tablets

• Simplicity of devices removes the fear of technology

• More home and remote working (still connected to the office)

• Uncertainties about data ownership hold up cloud services

Scenario #3

• Coverage and connectivity taken for granted

• Fixed, mobile and WiFi interlink seamlessly

• Demand is user-specific rather than location-specific

• Voice traffic predominately over mobile

• TV viewing highly personalised and immersive

• Cloud technology is the norm

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