Sunday, 3 May 2015

Funding the BBC

The future funding of the BBC is once again in the spotlight as its Royal Charter comes around for renewal. For years the arguments for and against the Licence Fee have been rolled out, but it strikes me that there is an opportunity to approach the whole thing quite differently and kill two birds with one stone. My starting point may seem off beam – but bear with as it all comes together by the time I’m done.


Increasingly you hear people talking about access to wi-fi, and more broadly to communication channels, as a utility that they ‘can’t live without’. To future generations it will doubtless seem weird there could ever have been a situation where there wasn’t an integrated national communications net.

In the early days of electricity there were a host of different providers with competing infrastructure, using different voltages and so forth. This is inconceivable now. And so it will be with communications in future.


Rather than being dragged kicking and screaming into the future – too often the default position for British politicians and civil servants – why not actively prepare for the future and actively promote a single national communications net. So what would such a thing require? In short, a single entity should take over the following:
* telecom infrastructure (BT)
* cable infrastructure  (Virgin)
* mobile mast/network infrastructure (Vodafone/BT/3)
* terrestrial TV/radio masts (Arqiva)

The new national comms entity would run all digital ‘pipes’ in the UK, while private operators run consumer-facing services using this infrastructure. In other words, not unlike Network Rail providing the tracks for private train operators. (Perhaps not the happiest comparison, but anyway…)

Getting the ownership structure for this national entity would be tricky. Without wanting to get too bogged down on this aspect, let’s just say it would nice to see it split between:
* the operators
* the employees
* the government (perhaps with a ‘golden share’)

Will Hutton for one is enthused how a public utility – in the form of Welsh Water – can thrive outside of the greed-infested realm of stockmarket PLCs.  Making employees stakeholders could certainly aid productivity. I don’t see John Lewis doing too badly.  But the operators themselves also need a stake – as does the government, to ensure consistent and fair coverage across the nation (ie: limit blackspots in unprofitable rural areas)


So what’s all this got to do with the BBC? Good point. It didn’t escape my notice that many of the ‘operators’ in this digital landscape will be carrying BBC output one way or another. So instead of a licence fee, this national comms entity pays for the BBC – passing on the cost to all operators being billed anyway for accessing the infrastructure. The operators then pass on these costs to their customers (ie: the great British public in the main).

But is it fair? Well, it’s not less fair I’d say than a flat licence fee, which doesn’t take account of individual levels of consumption. In future, operators may charge customers in line with the amount of data they consume. As such, the portion of costs passed on for Public Service broadcasting would be very roughly correlated to data consumption – which doesn’t seem entirely unfair.

What about Sky? You may have noticed that I haven’t talked satellites. I’m not going to go into detail here – but suffice to say – that I have thought about this angle and don’t see why the model proposed here is invalidated by the presence of  satellite broadcasters.


Of course, one could dismiss this all with a single wave of the hand saying it’s grotesquely unrealistic politically. Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

And one final bonus thought:  a national comms utility probably won’t go around digging up the roads as much…

* Let me know what you think. And if you want to know more, drop me a line.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Gaza and First World War

I woke this morning to the news that it’s exactly 100 years since the First World War began. An hour later I read Brian Eno’s letter about Gaza.

At first glance there is no obvious connection – other than being yet two more depressing punctuations in the litany currently being thrown at us.

Nevertheless, there is a direct connection. It is not just that war is mad, and utterly avoidable, if only we humans could rise above our darker natures. It is that the sad history of the First World War is still being played out.

A comfortable and self-serving interpretation of the First and Second World Wars pervades in the UK: German aggression in 1914 was outdone a quarter of a century later when the country, led by an evil genius, upped the ante by adding bestial war crimes and genocide to the mix. This interpretation is not wrong, but it only conveys one side of the story.

However awful and avoidable the descent into war may be, it at least leaves open the possibility of crafting a lasting peace after the guns fall silent. The allies had their chance to do just that in Versailles in 1919, but instead they produced the 20th century’s most catastrophic failure.

With huge war debts, France and Britain looked to Germany to accept guilt for the whole thing and thus pay for it all. This was both grotesquely unrealistic and unjust – not least because Germany had thrown in the towel voluntarily, rather than continue with the blood-letting right to the bitter end.

Wanting to ‘squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak’ appealed to the worst of human nature. It was driven by hatred and the pursuit of money above the virtues of compassion and fairness. Versailles created an ocean of resentment in Germany, with all the nutrients required for fascism to bloom.

Not content with that, the so-called ‘peace makers’ also saw fit to dismember the weakened Ottoman Empire. The colonial carve up took little notice of tribal divisions in the Arab world. The resulting frictions never ceased and today we live with the consequences. The latest chapter sees the artificial boundaries between Syria and Iraq being laid bare by Isis. We can be sure the troubles won’t stop there.

The British provided a similarly fertile breeding ground for future conflict in Palestine and Israel, with the Balfour declaration of 1917 and inglorious weakness after the Second World War. The conflict goes on to this day and Brian Eno grieves over one of its most recent, youngest, innocent victims.

So while Germany made war, Britain singularly failed to make peace. A centenary of the First World War began, I was left with this thought: it is not just stopping war that’s important, it’s also how we go about making peace.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A passport to print money

I'm not into kicking dogs when they're down, but when it comes to the UK's immigration service I can't help myself.

Ten years slipped by fast and I ventured online to find out about getting a new passport. All I was doing was renewing an existing one. None of my details had changed, not even a new address.

And what does it cost? A whopping £77.50 that's what.

To make matters worse, the Passport Service encourage punters to use the Post Office 'check and send' service for another £8.50 and on top of that is the cost of getting two passport pictures. I could have attempting doing it on the cheap, but just went into my local Snappy Snaps and paid another £9.50. So actually it costs just shy of £100!

£100 for a single document?

It simply beggars belief that a service could be this inefficient. If Google had the contract, I daresay they'd be able to do it for £10 - maybe £20 tops.

It fills me with dread that successive governments can be this wildly inefficient and somehow think it's normal.

If one was to venture abroad for a single two-week holiday each year, the cost of the passport alone isn't far off £1 per day out of the country. I daresay the flights will be cheaper than that soon.

Back in 1992 it cost £18 to get a ten year passport - which doesn't seem entirely unreasonable. How times change in the alternate universe inhabited by the government.

With admirable understatement, Wikipedia tells us "while consumer prices in the UK have increased by 24% from early 1998 to 2009, the price of a passport renewal increased by 269%"

Now, don't get me wrong - I do have not problem at all with the folk employed by the passport service. I spoke to one of them on the phone. He was helpful and acted impeccably. My issue is entirely with the management and those behind the contract. People are hard up and the best you can do is make them pay £96 for a bit of paper.