UK Lords call for internet to be reclassified as a utility


THE HOUSE OF LORDS IS BACKING the idea of a free and gloriously open internet that is available to all, and is – rather less exciting sounding – reclassified as a utility.

The plans come on the heels of similar noises from the US where Title II reclassification is a hot and contentious topic.

Here we have the Lords releasing a report advocating that the government takes the internet and makes it a ‘utility service’ much like it is in Estonia where it is considered a human right, and much as people like Tim Berners-Lee would appreciate.

The Lords’ report, Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future (PDF), was published this week and produced by the Select Committee on Digital Skills.

The committee was asked in June 2014 to “consider and report on information and communications technology, competitiveness and skills in the UK”, and it has.

The TL:DR version is that a lot of work is urgently required. People need access to computers and the internet, and to be skilled in their use. This is an arms race, well more of a fingers race, and the UK is falling behind.

“We are concerned about the pace of universal internet coverage and the delivery of superfast broadband,” the report said.

“In particular, we find it unacceptable that, despite government efforts, there are still urban areas experiencing internet ‘not-spots’, which is hampering universal coverage and the UK’s international competitiveness.”

The “bedrock” of this competitive future is the internet as a utility, according to the committee. “We agree with our witnesses who urged that the government should define the internet as a utility service that is available for all to access and use,” it said. “This is the bedrock of digital competitiveness.”

Utility status is not the only desired change. More students should be encouraged to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects, the report said, adding that the courses are there but the teaching gets in way of the learning.

“The UK is taking significant steps to prepare school pupils for the future
digital workforce, but we risk being let down by inconsistent training for
teachers,” it added. “Leadership and coordination from the government in teacher training is essential.”

This and a drive to get more women into the industry feature heavily in the report. “The government is responsible for ensuring the UK’s population keeps pace with the best in the world,” it says, later explaining that women are not paid as well as men.

“The paucity of women in digital and Stem is holding back UK competitiveness. Increasing the numbers of women could reap significant benefits. Girls have to be engaged earlier and across all education levels. The perception of digital and Stem jobs and subjects as male-oriented must be addressed,” the committee said.

Education should extend out of the classroom, and the report finds that more work is is needed to educate people about the benefits and potential risks of going online. The Cyber Streetwise effort is an attempt, but has not been successful and has not “broken through”.

More funding and industry cooperation are also requested. For example, universities should be encouraged to work with industry to make sure that students graduate with relevant and workable skills, and the digital industry should feature more prominently in early stage career guidance.

The UK should also give one Cabinet minister responsibility for the digital agenda to drive the message across all departments. Furthermore, any plans and procedures will need oversight, and the Lords should expect to continue such a role.

There is a lot to chew over in a long report, and a number of recommendations for change. The question will be how much of it the government chooses to take on board, and whether it decides to make the changes in time.

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