Mobile industry debates new political dimensions

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Reaction from industry service providers, distributors and network operators to NI, flexi-working, spectrum and technology issues raised by new UK coaltion government in Queen’s Speech

This year’s Queen’s speech included 22 bills and a number of secondary legislations, covering national insurance (NI) contributions, and energy and the green economy, through to increased investment in high-speed broadband and extending flexible working rights.

Included in the details are plans to stop a one per cent increase in employers’ NI contributions in 2011, to empower employees to request flexible working hours and to reduce the cost of building the broadband infrastructure.

Jane Bennett, head of campaigns at the Forum of Private Business, said: “The compromise reached over contributions isn’t ideal and will still create a bureaucratic burden for smaller firms. However, it is preferable to the larger increase previously proposed by the last government.
“The proposals for the right to request flexible working shouldn’t prove too onerous for SMEs, providing the employers’ right to refuse a request with good reason remains.”

Fone Logistics marketing director Julien Parven (pictured, left) said the block in the one per cent rise of employer’s NI contributions is important, as the impact of the increase “had the potential to be quite far-reaching.”

He remarked: “If you look at the distributor channel model you’re working to high turnover with low margins. If you multiply a one per cent rise across an entire workforce over a whole year, it could have had a big impact. It’s a positive move that will be widely accepted, and was needed I think. If you look at much larger corporations, such as the networks, then that one per cent comes with a heavy multiplier.”

Parven had a more cautious approach to the impact of changes to the way flexible working is handled.

“Will it be from a legislative or a best-practice point of view, with recommendations and guidelines? If it’s legislative, a lot of businesses already do it and legislation could undo the good work already done and dilute what’s out there.

“As an example, we are mindful of the different obligations our staff have. We know it’s easier to maintain good staff than to find them, so we need to be flexible. A lot of companies have adopted flexible working on the fly without really knowing they’re doing it. Potential legislation could make the situation worse, and could see SMEs step back and follow the legislation to the letter as it’s dangerous working outside it. This could weaken what they’re already doing.”

The implementation of technology infrastructure was a key point for many within the mobile industry. The Queen’s speech included early details of secondary legislation to invest in high-speed broadband, on which Parven held a similar view to flexible working.

“To me, it’s quite interesting whether it will be a regulated national service or an infrastructure that’s available to the open market and people can bid to run services across a common infrastructure. It’s an interesting proposition.

“Its got to be done sensibly with controls, or it could be a step backwards that leads to conflict and confusion, which would slow penetration and take-up.”

He went on: “It would add another competitive edge to the sales channels, being able to offer mobile, fixed line, mobile broadband and broadband in a single billing environment. It’s a powerful proposition from the channel position. It allows you to become more entangled with the customer, and could help with the perennial churn conversation. It won’t prevent it but it will make customers much stickier.”

An O2 spokesperson said the firm was also pleased with government broadband plans, particularly the opening up of BT’s infrastructure to rivals to aid growth. The spokesperson said: “As an investor in the UK broadband market we welcome the government’s commitment to promoting competition and its plans to open up access to BT ducts, poles, cabinets and dark fibre.”

Timico head of indirect channel Iain Sinnott said the investment in technology has a more straightforward role to play on the grounds of “both a green and transport logistic cornerstone.”

He explained: “I will be interested to see if this administration continues to fail to identify technology as both a green and transport logistic cornerstone to a more efficient UK by failing to incentivise the reduction in travel and the installation of IP telephony.

“There have been broad comments in the past about getting better broadband to the home, so more home working can be incorporated into standard operating practice.

“But it is never translated in simple terms – such as, if a salesman avoids one wasted journey per week through pre-qualifying customers in a virtual meeting, or regional managers avoid one day’s travel per week through conducting virtual team meetings or individual 1-2-1s. These things mean fewer cars on the road, less pollution and the companies themselves save money.”

Vodafone UK chief Guy Laurence (pictured, right) said the government must examine the UK spectrum situation as it moves forward with its plans for Digital Britain.

Said Laurence: “It is essential the new government takes a fresh look at the crucial issue of spectrum allocation if it wishes to make a success of our digital economy and give all operators a fair opportunity to compete. It shouldn’t be difficult to reach an equitable agreement in a relatively short period of time as there are several knowledgeable independent parties that could chair such a discussion.”

The coalition government’s first budget is the next standout event set to have a direct impact on UK business, and will be announced on June 22.

The FPB’s Bennett concluded: “Business owners will be in something of a state of limbo until June 22, when the chancellor will hopefully outline fully detailed taxation and spending policies in his budget.”

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