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An action plan for Ofcom

Turning the retriever into a greyhound

Clarify the regulation of PLC (HomePlug/powerline) technology

Powerline communication is an emerging technology that is proving itself to be easy, reliable, and extremely practical for the new era of digital home networks that are powered by broadband connections. It creates an Ethernet connection across existing electricity cabling in the home so connectivity is available through any normal AC power socket. They are the most effective way in the vast majority of homes of achieving a robust enough video connection to a set-top box for IPTV services that are delivered over copper phone lines.

Yet, you will rarely find 200Mbps PLC adaptors in the high street, and have to buy them online. This isn’t because the technology isn’t being adopted, it is because retailers are unsure of the laws governing their regulation, which makes them err on the safe side when doing their procurement. Apparently they generate “interference” and hence need to be policed – the BBC tells us they cause havoc with long wave radio signals. All electrical devices must confirm to international safety standards and wherever they are there will be a certain amount of RF/EM emission.

Ofcom needs to clarify this as soon as possible, as the use of these adaptors directly affects the viability of next-generation telecoms services (e.g. IPTV) in the home. Even if the answer seems obvious, an unambiguous briefing is needed that people can easily reference. No one has given a detailed explanation of this alleged spectrum pollution, but nonetheless if you want to buy a starter kit you will add them to your online shopping list, next to the Viagra.

Open up the WiMax spectrum free of charge

WiMax is just too complex, and the telecoms industry is crammed with start-ups and business plans for its use, particularly in rural areas where DSL penetration is low. Pipex owns the rights to the 3.5GHz band, and PCCW owns the 3.4GHz band. Many operators want to operate in the 5GHz range, and Ofcom is considering opening up the 3G band, 2.5GHz for non-3G use. To add to that, low-power domestic Wi-Fi equipment uses 2.4GHz, and there is more talk of playing with both 3.6GHz and 3.7GHz for long-haul services. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it either.

Our government’s objective is allegedly keeping control of our finite spectrum assets, but when it comes down to it, it's all about cash, as the 3G debacle showed. The chancellor separated operators from over £20 billion pounds, leaving them to spend further on infrastructure that was depreciated by the time they started to see consumer uptake. WiMax is worse than that – the technology and market changes daily. Consortiums and specifications are delayed, argued over, re-ratified and changed while the rest of the world watches in frustration. The chaos of 3G would be disastrous for universal internet connectivity, not to mention the government’s plans the broadband-powered knowledge economy.

So here is a radical plan for WiMax – open up the spectrum free of charge and let operators innovate to their heart’s content. Make deployment cheap as chips. Licence operators with minimal fees and make sure guidelines are observed by all means, but let the industry grow by itself, organically. Make universal internet connectivity a truly free market and protect it from the interests of companies looking to be monopolists. We need to encourage 100 per cent broadband coverage for the good of our overall digital economy and present alternative means of accessing other global networks that is not based on premium-rate mobile telephony or legacy copper.

Give digital radio parental guidance ratings

Some may question this as a trivial and unnecessary act, and others may wonder why it was not done before. All modern digital television services now feature parental-control mechanisms, where content that is identified as adult unsuitable and out of bounds for children under 18. Cinema has enjoyed guidance ratings system for decades that provides an easy and useful way of limiting access to potentially harmful material by minors. Digital media gives us the ability to describe content and broadcast information that helps us control how we consume it.

Technology empowers us to make more informed choices and to extend ourselves as human beings. Media now can truly be the very epitome of free speech, but equally protect those who are vulnerable. Digital radio receivers (DAB) should regularly invoke pin-protection for whole radio stations and/or individual programs that are broadcast with an 18 age rating. DJs should be allowed to swear, curse, air offensive and dissenting opinions, and use adult material if their listeners enjoy them. Use of ratings should be transparent on all devices – car stereos, TVs and computers.

Clarify EU and UK regulation of IPTV content

The EU is preparing a legal framework for all its member countries to adopt regarding broadband television content, one that cascades into our legal system for usages as a yardstick in cases where court intervention is required. So far, early IPTV services in the UK have been “closed” systems that almost duplicate cable, using IP as a transmission medium across a private copper phone line network that never transgressed onto the internet. That pretty clearly identified it as broadcast television, leaving it to fall under conventional broadcasting law. The problem now is when IPTV networks cross the private network boundary and converge with the rather big public one – the internet. There has been no clear, unambiguous lead from Ofcom as of yet.

Consider the following scenario – a dodgy East European porn company decides to stream its rather tasteless content as a high quality PAL multicast video stream using a QoS-assured VPN tunnel over the internet. Thirteen year old male UK IPTV subscribers can add their own channels and, through their broadband-connected IP set-top box, subscribe to the channel. The question we face is, is that stream broadcast TV or internet content? If it is broadcast, how do we regulate it to ensure our TV networks aren’t used for criminal activities such as child abuse or terrorism? If it is internet content, where does policing of content end once it starts with video? How do we solve problems like video spam and control channels switching addresses to evade detection?

Once the wild west of the internet is allowed into our living rooms, the proverbial genie is very much out of the box and it’s going to be impossible to put it back in again. Who decides what we can and can’t watch? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to tune into any CCTV camera in the UK if we are monitored by them every day. Governments already monitor our voice calls, internet activity and private consumer data, but what about video calls and media consumption? With IP video, all the lines have to be redrawn as we can integrate, interoperate and converge as far as we like.

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