PC Probe

One year to Brexit: tech’s divorce plan

PC Pro - - Briefıng - Ste­wart Mitchell

It’s not only the Sin­gle Mar­ket that the UK will leave in April 2019, but the Dig­i­tal Sin­gle Mar­ket (DSM).

A year into the process, the divorce plan is be­com­ing clearer – even if sev­eral key fac­tors re­main to be de­cided. Data roam­ing charges, the geoblock­ing of dig­i­tal con­tent, the flow of data through the UK and in­vest­ment in broad­band net­works are all set to be dis­rupted by our de­par­ture from the DSM. Here’s what we know so far.

Mo­bile roam­ing

One of the DSM’s key achieve­ments was an end to the “bill shock” of mo­bile and data roam­ing, with phone com­pa­nies goug­ing con­sumers and busi­ness trav­ellers who wanted to stay con­nected while abroad. Once Britain leaves the EU, those reg­u­la­tions would no longer ap­ply – but there’s no guar­an­tee that con­sumers will see a re­turn to high charges.

The UK’s main op­er­a­tors, for ex­am­ple, have all said they have no plans to re-in­tro­duce charges post-Brexit. Time to re­lax? Not yet. Plans can change and the in­dus­try has no con­trol over the whole­sale charges Euro­pean Union op­er­a­tors may im­pose. In its im­pact as­sess­ment for leav­ing the EU, the De­part­ment for Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport (DCMS) said, “the gov­ern­ment would be able to cap the whole­sale roam­ing charges that UK-based op­er­a­tors could im­pose on EU op­er­a­tors for us­ing their net­works, but could not re­quire EU-based op­er­a­tors to re­cip­ro­cate when UK con­sumers used EU net­works”.

There’s a wor­ry­ing prece­dent here, too. In its writ­ten ev­i­dence to the DCMS, BT pointed out that “cus­tomers of Swiss mo­bile op­er­a­tors face sig­nif­i­cantly higher roam­ing

Plans can change and the UK-based in­dus­try has no con­trol over the whole­sale charges EU op­er­a­tors may im­pose

costs than cus­tomers of EU op­er­a­tors as the Swiss op­er­a­tors do not ben­e­fit from reg­u­lated whole­sale rates”.

And even if op­er­a­tors don’t re-in­tro­duce nom­i­nal roam­ing charges, they are likely to make up the short­fall else­where. “We’ve seen a num­ber of op­er­a­tors say ‘we’ll main­tain a roam­ing sta­tus quo and swal­low the cost’,” said Jeremy Lil­ley, a pol­icy man­ager at in­dus­try group TechUK. “But it’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to un­der­stand that has a knock-on ef­fect else­where, whether it’s costs be­ing passed on to con­sumers or a re­duc­tion in in­vest­ment in the net­works – these aren’t zero sum games.”

Con­tent geoblock­ing

An­other key con­sumer ad­van­tage of the DSM is the prom­ise of be­ing able to buy or rent dig­i­tal con­tent from any­where in the re­gion – so UK trav­ellers can watch Net­flix or other stream­ing ser­vices when abroad.

The EU plans to re­move such me­dia borders in 2019, but ex­perts say there’s “still a long way to go” with im­ple­ment­ing the leg­is­la­tion, ir­re­spec­tive of Brexit. “Geoblock­ing fig­ures highly in con­ver­sa­tions, and the com­plex­i­ties from a con­tent rights per­spec­tive be­cause con­tracts are ne­go­ti­ated within each coun­try,” ex­plained Chris Wood, a video plat­form ar­chi­tect with me­dia com­pany Spicy Mango. “What does it mean for con­tent providers? Would the EU over­rule lo­cal agree­ments and would dis­trib­u­tors such as Voda­fone or Dis­cov­ery be at risk of be­ing sued be­cause con­tent has to be dis­trib­uted out­side of mar­ket?”

Be­ing out­side of the EU, how­ever, will mean firms op­er­at­ing in Britain won’t have to abide by the rules. That could cre­ate a con­tent silo, where British con­tent isn’t au­to­mat­i­cally avail­able to the EU coun­tries and vice versa.

Free flow of data

Hiked mo­bile bills and con­tent re­stric­tions could seem like mere pot­holes if the UK can’t reach an agree­ment with the EU about data con­trols. The EU’s prin­ci­ple tool for data is the new Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion, which in the UK will sit hand in hand with the Data Pro­tec­tion Act.

“We ab­so­lutely need to en­sure a mu­tual ad­e­quacy de­ci­sion be­tween the EU and the UK to en­sure that free flow of data can hap­pen and the prime min­is­ter had pos­i­tive words on that in that Man­sion House speech,” said Lil­ley. “She said the UK wants to go beyond ad­e­quacy and have a reg­u­la­tory align­ment with a con­tin­ued role for the UK ICO [In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner’s Of­fice] on the EU data pro­tec­tion board. That’s a key area on whether there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to do some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

But the im­pact re­port high­lighted that the UK will have less say in the DSM pol­icy, while still hav­ing to ad­here to it. Ac­cord­ing to TechUK, the UK will also have to bend to the will of the DSM, while seek­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties else­where. “There are op­por­tu­ni­ties there, but a lot of those op­por­tu­ni­ties aren’t worth pur­su­ing if they out­weigh the ben­e­fits,” said Giles Der­ring­ton, head of pol­icy for TechUK.

“There isn’t a land of milk and honey that’s bet­ter than what we’ve got – things are go­ing to have to change. And we’ll have to be clev­erer and see how the rest of the world works to mit­i­gate some of the po­ten­tial down­sides.”

One of those down­sides is the UK ceas­ing to be­come the port through which data trav­els. At the mo­ment, Britain is a stag­ing post be­tween the US and the EU, partly due to lan­guage and po­lit­i­cal ties, but also be­cause so much ca­bling in­fra­struc­ture passes through the UK. Ac­cord­ing to TechUK, the UK rep­re­sents 3% of global GDP, but 11.5% of global data flows, with 75% of data pass­ing through the UK flow­ing be­tween Britain and the EU.

“We want to build on that but the way to do that is not by break­ing the abil­ity to free flow data in to the EU,” said Der­ring­ton. “We will only find suc­cess by main­tain­ing that and hav­ing close reg­u­la­tory align­ment and then look­ing for busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“We sent a let­ter to Liam Fox to say, ‘Look, we un­der­stand that you want to do trade deals, but don’t do that if it will di­verge from the free flow of data that breaks the link to the EU.”

Broad­band in­vest­ment

Al­though of­fi­cials, such as Brexit min­is­ter David Davis, have painted Brexit as a boost to broad­band be­cause it would al­low UK tax­payer in­vest­ment in in­fra­struc­ture, oth­ers be­lieve that leav­ing the EU and DSM will have a neg­a­tive im­pact.

“The UK is al­ready lag­ging be­hind in terms of high­speed broad­band ac­cess and this al­ready has a detri­men­tal ef­fect on SMEs and busi­nesses, in par­tic­u­lar those in ru­ral ar­eas,” Theresa Grif­fin, a Labour MEP, told PC Pro. “Re­gions in the UK have pre­vi­ously re­ceived Euro­pean Re­gional De­vel­op­ment Funds to up­grade their broad­band pro­vi­sion, such as Corn­wall re­ceiv­ing £132 mil­lion.”

Ac­cord­ing to Grif­fin, not only would leav­ing the DSM pose fund­ing prob­lems, it could also sti­fle am­bi­tion, with EU chiefs push­ing tar­gets that are far ahead of those in the UK. “In the Dig­i­tal Econ­omy Bill, the gov­ern­ment has set a tar­get for all UK cit­i­zens to have broad­band speeds of 10Mbits/sec by 2017, while the EU’s tar­get is 30Mbits/sec by 2020,” she said. “The UK risks be­ing left be­hind in terms of in­ter­net ac­cess and the gov­ern­ment has al­ready demon­strated very low am­bi­tions for im­prov­ing it.”

ABOVE

Corn­wall has pre­vi­ously re­ceived £132 mil­lion from the EU to im­prove broad­band across the re­gion

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