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UK Election Results Imperil Tories' Digital Infrastructure Plans

Conservative manifesto calls for more industry support, but also stronger penalties

Stronger regulation of social media has become a focus of UK Prime Minister Theresa May following recent terror attacks in London and Manchester. A wide-ranging list of digital infrastructure improvements is also on the agenda, but last week’s parliamentary losses have put those plans in jeopardy.

As a result of Thursday’s vote, May’s Conservative Party lost its majority in parliament—although it continues to have more seats in the House of Commons than any other party—and has turned to Northern Ireland’s right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to gather the remaining votes needed to form a new government. As of early this week, it’s still up in the air whether that partnership will be enough to keep May in power and then move her party’s agenda forward.

Provided coalition efforts succeed, the new government’s post-election digital plans call for the establishment of a “digital charter” that “balances freedom with protection for users, and offers opportunities alongside obligations for businesses and platforms.” It seeks to make the UK “the best place to start and run a digital business,” as well as “the safest place in the world to be online.”

UK Mobile Data and Device Metrics, 2016 & 2021

The plan’s pro-business elements include promises to help innovators and startups by encouraging early stage financial investment, tax relief, and efforts to address potential staffing problems if post-Brexit immigration rules make it difficult to find enough skilled workers to keep the UK’s digital industry humming.

Digital infrastructure improvements are also high on the agenda. Promises include an obligation that by 2020 every home and business in the UK has access to high-speed broadband, including connection speeds of 1 Gbps to as many businesses and homes as possible. Another goal is to have 1 million premises connected to full fiber broadband by 2022, as part of a decade-long push to full national coverage.

According to to spin off its related business unit to address concerns about its ability to influence competing firms’ rollout of “superfast” broadband.

When it comes to mobile-related improvements, the Conservatives’ manifesto calls for extending signal coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022. That includes “uninterrupted” mobile phone signal along all major roads and intercity train lines, plus “guaranteed” Wi-Fi service on all such trains. In addition, the majority of the population would be covered by 5G signal by 2027, via a newly built 5G network.

The Tories’ 5G goal is ambitious for a country where less than half of mobile connections were even at 4G speeds in 2016, according to Cisco Systems. By comparison, the 4G penetration rate in North America last year was 69%, according to Ovum and 5G Americas.

The plan’s consumer-focused initiatives include new rights to ensure internet users are in control of their own data. That includes requiring social media platforms to delete information gathered about users under 18 once they reach that age.

Companies that don’t adhere to digital directives would face fines or even prosecution. Additionally, there would be a tax on social media companies and communication service providers, similar to the levy charged to gambling industry businesses, with resulting revenues directed to support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet “harms.”

—Cliff Annicelli

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