Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect and in 2016 joined with BECTU to become a sector of Prospect . Since 2017, my articles have been published in the sector magazine "Stage, Screen & Radio". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2017. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.
Spring 2017 In Whose Interest Does Ofcom Regulate? Summer 2017 What Is This Thing Called The Internet Of Things? Autumn 2017 The Changing Picture Of Television Winter 2017 Is It Time To Control The Tech Giants?
The communications regulator Ofcom is about to acquire new responsibilities in relation to the BBC that raises again the difference between the consumer and the citizen interest. Our columnist ROGER DARLINGTON asks:
IN WHOSE INTEREST DOES OFCOM REGULATE?
Something really interesting happened towards the end of the Parliamentary passage of what is now the Communications Act 2003 [click here] that merged five regulators into a new Office of Communications or Ofcom. The House of Lords successfully forced an amendment to broaden Ofcom’s duties.
The original Bill had simply proposed that Ofcom – like many other economic regulators – have a duty “to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition”. The noble Lords added a further duty: “to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters” [click here].
Ofcom had opposed the amendment and when it was carried sought to accommodate the change by simply referring in its documents to “the consumer-citizen”. Critics rightly argued that use of a hyphen was not good enough and that Ofcom needed to recognise that the consumer interest and the citizen interest, while often overlapping, are not the same.
So what is the difference?
We can define consumers as people who pay for a particular product or service and usually have a contractual relationship with the provider of that product or service. For instance, you buy or rent a mobile phone and subscribe to a mobile network.
Citizens are those who might well be impacted by a decision of a player in the marketplace, whether or not they actually buy that provider’s product or service. For example, you care for the sake of a mature democracy whether the BBC provides an impartial news service whether or not you have a television and whether or not you actually watch the BBC.
It is often easier to identify the consumer interest because we have market data on what consumers are buying and, in a competitive marketplace, they can signal their preferences by switching to another provider.
The citizen interest can sometimes be harder to determine. We know that viewers want fair and comprehensive news coverage with a range of other programming like drama and children’s programmes and they want all nations and regions to be catered for, but what should be the balance of scarce resources between these programmes and localities?
Sometimes there is both a consumer and a citizen interest and they do not always coincide. So, as a consumer you may want the best possible coverage for your mobile network but, as a citizen, you may object to a local mast because it is unsightly.
Or take an issue that might seem obscure but is so important: the allocation of spectrum. As a consumer, you might want to see more spectrum (for instance the 700 MHz band) made available for faster mobile services but, as a citizen you might be concerned at how Freeview – which currently broadcasts in that band – is going to manage with less spectrum.
The truth is that often in regulation there is both a consumer and a citizen interest and it is important that the regulator identifies and weighs both and that trade-offs between the two are made explicit, explained and justified.
How do consumer and citizen groups make their views known to Ofcom? The regulator consults often and widely, but many consumer and citizen groups simply do not have the resources to digest long and complex consultation documents and then make written submissions.
On Ofcom’s behalf, I chair a body called the Consumer Forum for Communications [click here] which brings together a wide range of consumer, citizen and campaign groups – including trade unions - with an interest in Ofcom’s agenda. We meet regularly with relevant Ofcom officials.
Some of our members, like the Voice of the Listener & the Viewer, are understandably keen that we monitor Ofcom’s new responsibilities for the BBC so that the citizen interest is heard as well as the consumer interest.
Soon many more devices than people will be connected to the Net and we should be thinking about the implications of this for individuals and society, writes our columnist ROGER DARLINGTON.
WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED THE INTERNET OF THINGS?
Amazingly the Net is now almost 50 years old although most of us have only been using it for the last couple of decades.
For most of this time, the Net has been seen as a network to connect people, whether communicating one-on-one through e-mail or more widely through social media, whether obtaining information from web sites like Wikipedia, or making purchases through e-commerce sites like Amazon.
Increasingly, however, the Net will be connecting devices of many kinds in huge numbers in a phenomenon that is dubbed the Internet of Things (IoT).
If we use the definition of IoT favoured by Cambridge Consultants who have just done a 143-page study for the regulator Ofcom, then at the end of 2016 there were just over 13M devices connected to the Net in the UK but, by 2024, that figure is projected to be 156M which would be around three devices for every man, woman and child in the nation.
What sort of devices are we talking about? We could break down usage either by application or by sector.
If we use an analysis by application, we can envisage three main scales of usage: that of our bodies – such as smart watches - where the effort is referred to as the “quantified self”, that of our house – such as smart meters - which we call “the smart home”, and that of our public spaces – such as driverless cars – which we term “the smart city”.
If we use an analysis by sector, then three are set to dominate: consumer electronics and fast moving consumer goods (such as fitness aides and smart televisions), utilities (including electricity, gas and water), and transport (such as autonomous vehicles and traffic management systems).
In the world of technology, we tend to exaggerate likely changes in the short term and underestimate the impact in the longer-term. This is true of IoT: progress has been relatively slow so far but new technologies are set to enable much faster growth.
These technologies included cheaper and easier radio and mobile connectivity, the widespread availability of sensors, and enhanced processing capability.
So should we as consumers and citizens welcome or worry about IoT?
There is an enormous range of benefits.
At the level of the individual, imagine wearable fitness devices that could prompt early intervention when your doctor detects a change in your heart beat or cholesterol level and payment systems that enable us to do without cash or cheques. At the level of the home, think of dishwashers or washing machines can automatically use electricity when the tariffs are lowest or refrigerators and kitchens that automatically order food or goods as they are needed. At the level of society, consider the benefits to the environment of replacing private cars by on-demand autonomous vehicles and eliminating traffic jams by use of smart traffic systems connected to those smart cars.
But there are many concerns too. As we become more dependent on more connected networks, what happens if those systems fail? The recent debacle with British Airways’ IT systems is a warning to us all. And, in so far as the systems do not fail but indeed are more reliable than we as individuals would ever be, will we lose a sense of personal autonomy?
There are massive issues around data. Can we be sure that data about our health or consumption habits is secure and cannot be hacked? Can we be sure that data is only used when we provide consent and only for the purposes for which we grant consent?
The reality is, whether you like it or not, IoT is coming soon to a device near you – if it hasn’t already done so.
Cambridge Consultants report for Ofcom click here
"Guardian" Long Read article click here
Technology is transforming how we consume television but some habits die hard, writes our columnist ROGER DARLINGTON
THE CHANGING PICTURE OF TELEVISION
Once upon a time, the whole family sat down together for most of the evening and watched the limited television programming on offer on the single black and white TV set. Oh, how things have changed – but not always as much as you might imagine. All my data comes from Ofcom’s “Communications Market Report” for 2017 [click here].
Today 95.5% of UK homes own a television set – all colour, many high definition – but many homes have multiple sets and access TV on other devices such as tablet computers and smartphones. There are now around 330 channels on offer, So what are watching on all these devices with all these channels?
Well, we’re still watching a lot of television. Although viewing time has declined by 12% (30 minutes) over the past five years, the average viewer still watches 212 minutes of TV a day. And, in spite of the availability of on-demand and streaming services, the five main public service broadcasting (PSB) channels still take just over half (51%) of audience share and, when their portfolio of channels is added, over two-thirds of viewing.
Perhaps surprisingly, live broadcasting still comprises fourth-fifths (80%) of programme viewing time across all screens, with recorded viewing at 12% and on-demand just 8%.
But television viewing has now become a generation game.
Younger people watch less television than older viewers and average viewing time is falling fastest among younger viewers. So, while viewing across almost all age groups has declined, the fall has proportionately been greatest among adults aged 16-24 and children aged 4-15. Viewing has held stable among the over 64s.
A typical young adult of 16-24 watches 114 minutes a day, while a typical viewer of over 64 watches 344 minutes. Furthermore new research from Ofcom found that 66% of teenagers use YouTube to watch TV programmes and films compared to 38% of all adults.
However, currently the biggest impact on patterns of TV viewing comes from the growth of streaming services. In Britain, the leading streaming services are Netflix, Amazon and Now TV, although other potential players include Apple and Disney.
At the end of 2016, Netflix had nearly 6M subscribers in the UK, while Amazon Prime had an estimated 3.8M customers. Again we see a generational difference. While almost a third (31%) of adults claim to use Netflix, nearly half (46%) of teens said they used it.
What is the appeal of such streaming services?
At first, these services aggregated a lot of library content cheaply. Films are very popular, so much so that Lovefilm – which rented DVDs through the post - has just closed its service. Streaming services improved the user experience by allowing binge viewing and eliminating advertisements.
Increasingly, though, Netflix and Amazon are pitching to increase subscriptions by offering high-quality original content such as “House Of Cards” and “The Crown”. Next these online giants are likely to bid for the broadcasting rights of major sports.
Traditional broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Sky could lose serious amounts of revenue to these new rival services. The UK broadcasting sector is estimated to be worth up to £15 billion, made up of the BBC’s licence fee, advertising revenue and pay TV subscriptions.
A report from O C & C Strategy Consultants [click here] has estimated that £1billion of this could be lost as viewers seek to simplify access to television content by using what the consultants call “super-aggregators”. That £1 billion is equivalent to the British television industry’s current annual profits.
In the midst of all this change, is there any place for local television? Following the obsession of then DCMS minister Jeremy Hunt, there are now 34 licensed local services. It is still early days, but so far there is no sign of them being profitable and this may come to be seen as a curious experiment.
The online world is increasingly dominated by a small number of huge players, writes our columnist ROGER DARLINGTON
IS IT TIME TO CONTROL THE TECH GIANTS?
Five behemoths bestride the Internet world. They are Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (owners of Google), Facebook and Microsoft – all American-owned and all simply enormous. The figures are mind-blowing.
At the time of writing, the market capitalisation of Facebook, the smallest, is around $517B with Amazon a shade larger at $529B. Microsoft comes in at $647B with Alphabet a bit bigger at $710B. Apple – the most valuable company in the world - is worth $842B.
That’s a combined value of $3,245B or an average of $649B (£496B) each. To give you some perspective, remember that the market capitalization of BT is currently £33B.
The impact of these tech giants is all-pervasive. Facebook has over 2 billion monthly active users. Google processes over 3.5 billion searches a day. Together Google and Facebook receive around 70% of advertising revenue worldwide. Google, Amazon and Microsoft are taking an increasing share of the cloud-computing market.
Should we be worried?
Let me be clear. I’m a consumer of the products and services offered by all of these five companies and I love the usability and functionality that they provide. Together they stimulate innovation of breathtaking speed and range.
But how good are these companies as corporate citizens? Google’s motto used to be “don’t be evil” and is now “do the right thing”. But the truth is that, like all companies the giant five essentially act so as to maximise shareholder value.
This is clear when you look at how they structure themselves as to minimise the tax that they have to pay to nation states where they generate the most income and profits. Recent revelations in the Paradise Papers provide the latest evidence that this is the case.
Also such concentration of power is not good for competition. In May this year, the European Commission fined Facebook 110M Euros for providing “misleading information” about its takeover of WhatsApp and, in June, the Commission levied a whopping 2.4B Euros on Google for abusing its monopoly in search.
These companies have an unbelievable amount of data on us and while, we agree to the use of this data, effectively we have no choice if we want to access their services and no real understanding of how their algorithms actually use this data. Then there is the ever-present possibility of data loss or hacking.
Google and Facebook determine in large part how we see the world and, as we have seen with the Trump/Russia allegations, are prone to manipulation by nefarious parties. Many online users are in danger of confining themselves to a ‘filter bubble’ that simply reinforces existing views and prejudices.
Finally there is the problem of illegal and problematic content whether it be child abuse images, promotion of terrorism, or the range of sexist, racist and homophobic filth that one can too easily find online. The likes of Google and Facebook can no longer regard themselves as mere carriers of material but have to take more responsibility for what they promote.
We do not want a heavy regulatory regime that stifles innovation or penalises creativity and we cannot and do not want to regulate online content in the same way as newspapers or television, but it is time for politicians and regulators to call these companies more to account.
If the tech giants do not behave more responsibly and transparently and if they do not have frank dialogue with policymakers and consumers, they will face a backlash against them with a series of country-specific and activity-specific interventions that they won’t like.
In June, the German Bundestag passed a law requiring social media sites to remove hate speech within 24 hours or face huge fines. The writing is on the wall and I hope that the companies are ready for constructive dialogue.
Wikipedia page on Amazon click here
Wikipedia page on Apple click here
Wikipedia page on Alphabet click here
Wikipedia page on Facebook click here
Wikipedia page on Microsoft click here