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Brexit mobile and broadband debate must involve consumers

The voices of consumers are being missed as communications services providers, industry bodies and the government set the agenda for the UK’s communications infrastructure market after Brexit

Communications services providers (CSPs) and industry bodies such as TechUK and the Broadband Stakeholders Group have done much to assess the impact of Brexit on the UK’s broadband, mobile and telecommunications infrastructure in relation to the digital industries, but the voices of end-users, in particular residential consumers of mobile and broadband services, are not being heard.

This is according to a report compiled by Will Perrin, a former telecommunications policy adviser in the Number 10 Police Unit and member of the GDS Advisory Board, on behalf of the Carnegie Trust.

The way that people engage with digital communications networks in the UK has – perhaps unbeknown to them – been heavily driven by European Union (EU) policy, legislation and regulation, and although this legislation is currently in the process of being transferred into UK law, any future changes could have a major impact on them.

“At present, the Brexit debate in the digital sphere is dominated by industry representative groups and analysts,” wrote Perrin. “These industry groups are doing a good job of articulating the risks and opportunities that Brexit presents for digital businesses.

“Strategically, however, the consumer voice is lost. While the UK government has focused on reassuring businesses, very little has been said about consumers of digital services, other than a welcome focus in the Digital Strategy on improving citizens’ digital skills.”

Perrin said the lack of a consumer voice was important because the EU’s Digital Single Market proposals are very much perceived as “consumer friendly”, and because their finalisation and implementation is ongoing, UK consumers need to have their interests represented better in negotiations about their implementation, and how the proposals will live on after Brexit.

He called for a cross-government, high-level working group focused on securing a better digital outcome from Brexit for UK consumers.

Challenge and opportunity

Perhaps the most high-profile issue facing UK consumers after Brexit will be whether or not Britons travelling in Europe will still be able to benefit from the EU-mandated abolition of mobile data roaming charges, which took effect in June this year.

Brexit complicates this because, according to EU telecoms policy chief Günther Oettinger,  any bilateral agreement on roaming charges struck between the UK and the EU outside of a comprehensive free-trade deal would legally have to be applied to all World Trade Organisation (WTO) members. This means no one-off agreement can be made between the UK and the EU on this issue.

Therefore, given the virtual impossibility of a comprehensive free-trade deal existing when the UK leaves the EU, Brits would have to hope that mobile roaming would be covered either under a transitional agreement, or by the goodwill of commercial networks negotiating with each other to offer free roaming in their service plans, as many did before the introduction of the EU legislation.

However, some of the changes resulting from Brexit could be very beneficial for consumers, said Perrin. “There do appear to be areas in the digital sphere where Brexit might allow the UK government to work with regulators to act more effectively in the interests of British citizens than had the UK remained in the EU,” he wrote.

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“Brexit presents an opportunity to diverge slightly, or at least evolve on a slightly different path from the EU Digital Single Market path, on certain issues. Moreover, it could do so in such a manner that, in my view, might be welcomed by the EU in the medium term if they prove successful in the UK.”

One such example could be the potential abandonment by the UK of a precedent established in European law 10 years ago in the Czech Republic, where a municipal broadband network in Prague was stopped by a consortium of industry bodies, establishing a precedent over how state aid can be used to fund broadband roll-out that informed the design of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme.

If the UK government was to set aside this precedent after Brexit, it is conceivable that local authorities could become involved in delivering local broadband and mobile services as a public utility to those who have been left behind by BDUK, although it should be noted that going down this route could cause problems for the UK in future trade negotiations with the EU.

Another change that could be made in favour of digital consumers that may be more achievable is the introduction of retail price controls on digital communications products, an option that the EU’s Communications Code proposes to bar.

Energy regulator Ofgem is currently preparing to introduce tougher price controls in its sector, and because broadband is increasingly seen as a utility, Perrin suggested that the UK government and Ofcom may like to take advantage of Brexit to try to resolve problems with competition in retail telecoms markets by bringing price controls into a market that, like energy, is “characterised by life-long service need and competition predicated on switching”.

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This would also involve the telecom companies coming to some agreement on what form of service to offer between each other, when their users go into each others countries from either the EU or UK.
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