UK must take leadership in communications

The UK needs to take action to be a leader in communication technology that will make the government’s vision of Digital Britain a reality, according to speakers at an event at the House of Lords this week.

The event, organised by the IET’s communications sector panel, considered key issues for the future of communications, including convergence, the impact of ubiquitous low-data rate devices, green issues and the future of digital broadband. But Lord Broers argued that the most important issue to be tackled now was taking action. He said he had recently spent time in the US and seen how money was flowing into technologies such as alternative energy, while those in the UK are still waiting for grants or investment.

"One of the consequences is that we’re bordering on insignificance," he said. "We have to be leaders not followers."

Broers pointed out that Vodafone, of which he was a director for 10 years, just got on with things, including pulling off one of the biggest mergers in corporate history: "I'm not sure if that was good, but at least we got on with it.

"Let's go out there, make a few mistakes and get out front," he added. "We are all engineers so we know how to take these risks."

Stephen Timms MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Minister with responsibility for the government's Digital Britain initiative, told the gathering of MPs, Lords, industry figures and other policymakers, that the communications industry was worth £52 billion a year to the UK economy and was a crucial enabler for all of Britain.

He said that the Digital Britain initiative was "a vision for positioning the UK at the leading edge of the digital economy". The Digital Economy bill, published last Friday, calls for the UK to have a competitive communications infrastructure, modernised in part by enhancing the duties of telecoms regulator Ofcom. It also suggests changing the digital radio licensing rules and tackling issues that undermined the UK’s position in the global media economy by tackling copyright breaches. The government also wants to create an independent ‘network design and procurement group’ to oversee the universal provision of 2Mbit/s universal broadband access by 2012, and will levy a 50p per month charge on each landline to pay for it.

"I'm very keen to legislate for that in the first finance bill of 2010,” said Timms. "This is all crucial work for a strong economy and a strong society."

Convergence or divergence?
Sir David Brown, former chairman of Motorola UK, discussed some of the myths surrounding the idea of convergence.

"Convergence has been my constant companion for the past 25 years," he said. In 1984 Brown was working at STC when it bought ICL, because it saw the potential for a convergence of computing and communications.

"Since then ‘convergence’ has always been qualified in some way, for example by talking about voice and data, or the convergence of communications, information and entertainment. Now we speak of convergence without qualification. We speak of convergence with an easy familiarity as if it exists – it doesn’t."

Brown said convergence depends on a combination of political will and an appetite for risk in the public and private sectors.

"From an engineering point of view, convergence is a promise that can be made. There are no technical roadblocks that cannot be worked around."

For example, Brown predicted that the communications industry will continue to increase over-the-air data rates to consumers wherever they may be, and that a potential spectrum shortage could be solved by the use of cognitive radio techniques: "If there is to be a spectrum crunch it will be short and local."

He predicted that most network access will be achieved by a combination of fibre-optic connections and wireless links to make the last link to the consumer. And he warned against thinking that convergence meant that all communications needs would end up being met from a single universal box.

"At the consumer device level, it would be comforting to think that the increasing complexity of communications will be manageable within one box that does it all. It's possible, I suppose, but unlikely," he said. "Technologies and markets won't stand still long enough for a fully converged device to emerge.

"Although innovation is fuelled by convergence, not everything about convergence is converged,” he added, arguing that the diversity of communications devices and access methods that we see in practice could lead to other types of divergence.

"If the digital divide was defined as between those who had a competitively high-bandwidth broadband connection and those who have none, we would see it widening," he said. "Similarly, the top-end mobile phones are getting smarter faster than the low-end phones, so the mobile divide may be increasing as well. And the increasing economic activity that improved communications can bring can also be increasingly concentrated."

Brown held out hope that with some foresight, many of these issues could be tackled.

"Engineers know enough about convergence to be confident that they can deliver it. But not everything about convergence is convergent. If we recognise that, we can engineer the political and technological environment for all of us to get the most out of the convergence of communications."

Ubiquitous data
Naomi Climer, vice president of Sony Professional Solutions Europe, used her presentation to talk about ubiquitous low data-rate devices, such as the RFID tags used in some shops, the near-field communications systems used in things such as travel passes, and even garage-door remote controllers.

"The growth of the number of such devices is exponential, and we know that these devices can be used for tracking things such as your travel on the London Transport system. What hasn’t been tapped is the potential for other applications to use the data on these devices in other ways. For example, we could add sensors to many of these devices and therefore be able to monitor carbon dioxide levels in the environment on a massive scale. Or why wouldn’t you volunteer to have a chip implanted into your bloodstream to monitor your blood sugar level if you were a diabetic?"

The rise of ubiquitous low data-rate devices opens up a number of issues such as the need for technical standards, although Climer said that the communications sector panel felt that industry would be able to develop such standards for itself. These devices will also demand new business models: "Imagine a company such as Google realising that all this data is out there and that they could do things with it."

As an example, satellite-navigation company TomTom is already deriving traffic information from the position and speed data of the mass of mobile phones traveling on the UK's roads – and developing a revenue stream from doing so.

The third issue is security and privacy: "These systems have the potential to aggregate data to the point that it becomes sensitive and so we will need regulation for both privacy and national security reasons."

Green issues
David Cleevely of radio spectrum monitoring company CRFS used his presentation to discuss the tension between the increasing energy consumption and carbon footprint that can be attributed to communications technology, and the opportunities that the technology brings to reduce greenhouse gases by more effective working.

"If you're not scared about climate change and global warning, then you really ought to be," he said. But it is important to concentrate on the issues that really matter, he added. "Switching off your phone charger is like bailing out the Titanic with a teaspoon. One day of the charger on standby is equivalent to one second driving a car."

So the industry needs to look at those aspects of the communications industry that have the greatest impact on climate change. For example, Cleevely said that it takes about 0.6% of global carbon dioxide emissions to run all the world's data centres, and a further 0.6% of emissions to cool them enough that they don't overheat. Information and communications technology (ICT) overall produces about 2% of global carbon dioxide, and about a third of that is the communications part. Compare this with air travel, which generates about 3.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. By 2020, it is predicted that emissions from ICT will grow to 2.8% of the total, because we are consuming so much more information. But the energy savings made possible by the intelligent application of ICT could save more than five times than the emissions.

"Can we rise to that challenge?" asked Cleevely. He pointed out that more intelligent control of electric motors could save 2% of emissions by 2020, more intelligent transport systems could save 3%, better building controls could save 3.7% and smarter electricity transmission grids could save 4%. So 13% of all carbon dioxide emissions could be mitigated by the intelligent application of ICT.

Cleevely argued that a lot of the effective application of these strategies would rely upon standard interfaces so that devices could exchange information effectively. Techniques such as road pricing and smart grids should work to common standards. He also pointed that the ICT industry could be more effective in managing its own carbon emissions, for example by increasing the use of femtocells in homes to make lower-energy mobile connections to people's handsets than those provided by large external base stations.

"The most important initiative is the most boring and the most incomprehensible. Standards lead to savings and engineering has to deliver those standards," he concluded.

Future broadband
Professor Will Stewart, chair of the communications sector panel, used his presentation to talk about the future of digital broadband. He argued that Digital Britain, the future that the government has envisaged in its strategy and recent bill, would not be more of the same, because the world will change very quickly once it is implemented. He suggested a simple thought experiment: think back 10 years and compare communications then with what we have now. Then think forward ten years.

Stewart said that achieving the objectives of Digital Britain is not trivial, even though consumers may feel that the services they are asking for are straightforward. He gave the example of trying to achieve ‘true mobility’ for consumers, so that all their data, connections, e-mails and messages, rights, permissions and ownerships move with them wherever they are, independent of the communications channel they are using.

He added that a truly Digital Britain would create a dependence on communications, because the expectation will be that communications channels will always be available. This implies a need for diverse channels, which is not easy to achieve: "Engineers will have to deliver that and we worry about getting it done."

Stewart said that enabling Digital Britain will need new business models to evolve, despite the fact that ICT already makes up about 8% of UK GDP.

"Sometimes I think the public think we are the Morlocks who just get everything to work. But the Morlocks had a viable business model. We haven't got that yet."

He mentioned a couple of interesting experiments with business models: a public WiFi offering in Swindon which is free for all users, but charges anybody who wants a faster connection; and Amazon’s Kindle e-book, which includes the cost of a lifetime cellular connection in the price of the reader.

All this will be for naught without equal access. During a question-and-answer session, Brown said that it will be vital to ensure that the UK ensures equal access to the Internet for all.

"It's impossible to conceive of a sensible digital future in which some people are constrained in terms of which bits of the net they can visit," he said. “I think the UK will have to go down the same route as the US in defending net neutrality."

Stewart added: "From an engineering point of view, net neutrality is absolutely necessary."

David Hendon, director for information economy in the business group at Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, warned against using the term 'net neutrality', even if the UK was trying to achieve the same thing: "It would be a really bad idea if we imported the concept of ‘net neutrality’ into the UK, because it’ll bring all the prejudice that goes with that from the US. Let's do our own thing on this."

Derek Wyatt MP, a member of the Parliamentary information technology committee and apComms, an independent group of MPs and members of the Lords, expressed his concern about the rights of the citizen in an age of ubiquitous computing and communications.

"Who gave Google and Facebook the right to use my intellectual property? And where do I take that question?

"I would like an opt-in rather than an opt-out button for every bit of information that the net asked for from me.

"I'm very distressed as a citizen that we have not had a debate on data privacy and data security."

Further information

Read the background briefing

Read the speech about ubiquitous low data rate devices by Naomi Climer

Read the speech on where digital broadband is heading next by Will Stewart

Read the speech on green energy in communications by David Cleevely

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