As you know I have been an MP four months now, having been a telecoms engineer for 23 years before that, working in both the public and the private sectors.
I’m grateful for this opportunity to find myself back in what is still my natural comfort zone, discussing telecommunications. Although of course there is little comfort at the moment. That is not a criticism. There is much to be proud of. But the internet is a disruptive technology in a time of great change and so there are bound to be many challenges. And I’m glad this is going to be a discussion as I am no longer in a position to pontificate as an industry regulator.
And I thought I’d kick of the discussion by talking about three things, which do encompass many of the issues the industry faces. Firstly the business model Secondly the social model. Thirdly, the communications model. Now when I first joined ofcom in 2004 to help write the Strategic Review of Telecoms, I remember we worked hard to try and figure out how to represent the complex changing value chain of Telecoms. In one direction it was moving into television and content creation. In another into publishing and content distribution. In another into devices and home management. At the same time the network platforms were also changing – mobile, wireless, satellite, broadband… I don’t think that complexity has gone away, some battles have been resolved some are still very much in play. I was at a BB conference recently where the CEO of a major telco said the problem was customers – demanding all you can eat broadband packages. I stopped listening at that because I have no time for business people who say the problem is the customer or politicians who say the problem is the voter. The customer is always right. If all-you-can-eat is not the right business model for the industry then we, you, the industry needs to give them something they want more than all-you-can-eat. That might be cheaper prices. Or it might be telemedicine. Now in a value chain which is changing and expanding, finding the business model which works will be a matter of trial and error and errors may cost companies profit but the industry should also recognise that not innovating, is not an option. I will not support regulation aimed at saving out-dated business models. That said, I’d be interested to know your ideas about how business models will change. And whether regulation stands in the way. Now for the social model. It is said that we generally over estimate how quickly technology will change society but underestimate how profoundly it will change society. I believe we were supposed to be on Mars by now, but still using dumb phones. The growing question for internet companies is – what kind of corporate citizen are they going to be? The kind that imposes technology on people or uses technologies to respond to peoples needs. Which gives opportunities? Or puts up barriers? As the internet becomes ever more integrated into our lives it carries ever more personal data; Will we be in charge of how our data is used? Will that data be collected, collated and used to manipulate us? Will we have a technoliterate society? Or a technocracy? Let me give one example.When I stood as a candidate I needed new email address just for political purposes so somewhat against my better judgement I went for a Google address which offered more data storage then my ISP provider. Within a few days adverts were appearing next to my emails; accommodation in Newcastle, printing facilities in Newcastle and most surprising, politics courses in Newcastle. Now I know how Google works but still I was annoyed. If I wanted personal ads I would take one out in the personal ad column. Finally then, the communications model and the way for the industry to influence it’s own destiny are obvious. Listen to customers. Innovate. And lobby Governments and customers more effectively. It is strange that an industry which is the platform for all communications is so bad at communicating. I was told that the reason the three strikes and your out internet legislation got through the last Parliament was because the content industry had a much more effective lobbying approach than telecoms. That the content industry would be offering trips to the Harry Potter set or to meet pop bands. Telecommunications industry would be offering trips to data centres. Now you have before you one of very few MPs who would prefer a trip to a data centre to any film set. But I know that is not the case for most of my colleagues.If you want a two way dialogue – and you do, then you still need to be more savvy in what you say. And how you say it.