Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Environment Agency

  The Environment Agency is responding to the Select Committee's request for written evidence for its inquiry into Communications. The Agency will provide evidence in relation to:

    —  the issues faced by public bodies in contributing to the provision of diverse high quality digital communication services, as exemplified by the Agency's extensive experience of using digital media to broaden accessibility to its information;

    —  safeguarding the rights of citizens and consumers to easy access to public information via the most appropriate media, particularly that relating to environmental issues and emergency incidents;

    —  determining a definition for public service broadcasting to include coverage of information and services funded by the public purse;

    —  the development and promotion of digital broadcasting, including radio, as a communication tool for public information, especially at a local level;

    —  cross-media ownership.


  The Environment Agency has a strong interest in the communication of public information. It has been investigating new media for the dissemination of information and provision of services since its formation in 1996. Its aims are to engage public interest, inform and change behaviour with respect to environmental issues. It views digital communications as a key means of achieving these goals.

  The Agency is leading Government in the provision of public sector information through emerging media. It uses content management to enable material to be authored once for dissemination via a multitude of interactive digital content platforms. Its scaleable internet service was the first in Government to be able to serve more than 1 million requests per day with no noticeable loss of service.

  The Agency was also the first Government body to develop a real time (24 hour updated) digital information and alerting service (for flood warning), which operates through the internet and will shortly also be broadcast via digital radio.

  Much of the Agency's information is relevant at a local level (eg flood warnings, beach quality, pollution, landfill). The Agency is exploiting the opportunities raised by digital channels to provide communities with accessible information about their locality. The use of interactive media will allow two-way communication, so that the Agency can both gather and disseminate local information via this service.

  The Agency is working in partnership with a public service broadcaster (the BBC) and a European-wide standardisation body (the European Broadcasters' Union) to develop its digital radio services for dissemination of community-specific information.

  The Agency is currently investigating a strategy for the dissemination of information and services via the medium of digital interactive television (iDTV), in line with the Government's "evolution rather than revolution" approach.

  Its development of digital communication tools to disseminate emergency and other environmental information has given the Agency a clear insight into the value ascribed to these services by the public. It has also illustrated the potential of interactive communications for educating and informing in a more engaging way than traditional media.

  During its investigations, the Agency has, however, encountered many issues that will also be pertinent to other public bodies when they come to embrace these technologies. Several of these issues are likely to be significant obstacles in achieving the targets set by Government. The Agency has identified the specific factors that it believes should now be considered by the Committee, and hopes that, by highlighting these, the obstacles will be removed to enable the future use of these channels by public service bodies, swiftly and without additional cost to the taxpayer.


Access to high quality diverse services

  The Agency is keen to provide high quality interactive information to the general public and other bodies, in order to educate and change behaviour regarding the environment. It sees iDTV and other digital media as a means of reaching the largest possible percentage of the population, and of informing them without appearing didactic. The Agency finds that the current charging model for the development of such iDTV services is an obstacle which is likely to prevent or restrict the development of such services by the public sector. Government's failure to specify a standard technological platform for iDTV services exacerbates this situation, as material needs to be prepared in numerous different formats (at corresponding extra cost) in order to be broadcast across all platforms, and ensure social inclusivity. Digital providers are able to exploit the current situation by developing exclusive "walled gardens" of selected lucrative content. Consequently, the status quo strongly discourages diversity and quality, being biased towards the broadcasting of information for which there is commercial rather than educational justification.

Safeguarding of citizens and consumers

  The current charging model for iDTV operates on the basis that an information provider will pay to broadcast on an iDTV channel, while the user will also pay in order to have access to that information. Also, given the need for information providers to pay multiple times for transmission of their material on a range of technological platforms by different broadcasters, this model is not conducive to wide dissemination of important, high quality, non-commercial material by public sector bodies. It clearly represents an injustice to the taxpayer, who, having already paid the public sector body to generate and broadcast the information, has then to pay again to access it. Much Agency and Government information (for instance, live flood warnings) is, in fact, likely to provide broadcasters with a strong selling point for their services. The current charging model appears totally inappropriate for the transmission of public sector information.

Definition and provision of public service broadcasting

  The Agency strongly believes that public service broadcasting should embrace information funded by the public purse and provided by the public sector. New media, such as iDTV and digital radio, should be used to add value to public information and provide it in an accessible, engaging and interactive way to diverse audiences. There is an increasing expectation from the public that Government information and services will be available digitally. This expectation currently extends as far as the internet, but will include iDTV and digital radio as soon as these media are widely available. It is vital that a framework is put in place to enable public bodies to utilise these media in order to match developing expectations. In the Committee's Second Report on Communications (point 119), AOL UK was reported as questioning "whether public service broadcasting will still be central or important to consumers' live in five or 10 years' time or whether the choice of content and services and of platforms over which these can be accessed will be so diverse as to end the need to safeguard public service broadcasting." The Agency would argue that there is, in fact, a greater need to safeguard public service broadcasting in the face of purely commercial competition.

Inclusion of local/community services

  Digital media can lend themselves to the development of services that are targeted to particular localities, because of the nature of the broadcast method. The Agency is keen to exploit such possibilities, in particular because so much of its environmental information is geographically dispersed. The Agency would encourage policy decisions that would facilitate full and even coverage of the country by broadcasters. It is concerned by the limited provision of some services, particularly cable, to rural areas, as well as "shadows" which prevent complete coverage by satellite and terrestrial broadcasters. A further issue is the variation in size between multiplexes in flat areas of the country, which tend to be large, and those in hilly areas, which tend to be small. This makes provision of equivalent information to communities in different locations more difficult. While the Agency appreciates that there is not likely to be a "quick fix" for this problem, Government should be aware of and acknowledge the issues it raises.

Inclusion of digital radio

  The Agency is keen to exploit this medium, and is already undertaking a pilot study. Given that a technical standard already exists for digital radio, development of services is reasonably straightforward. Take-up is principally restricted by the price of receivers. This medium is largely unpublicised at present, and urgently needs to be promoted, in order to stimulate a rise in the number of services it carries and a corresponding reduction in the cost of receivers. Until take-up is greater its impact will remain low.

Cross-media ownership

  The Agency favours healthy competition between digital communication service providers, but in the context of a "level playing field" with agreed technical standards for each medium. This is clearly not yet the case for iDTV. The use of incompatible technologies as weapons in a battle for clear and inclusive communication channels is not in the public interest. The Agency believes that the Government should seek to identify technical standards for this and other new media, while allowing market forces to compete freely in other respects. This will not only benefit public sector organisations, but also any other body who wishes to utilise these emerging communication platforms.


  The definition of public service broadcasting should be clarified, in order to safeguard the public's ability to access key information from public sector bodies over the full range of new media.

  Government should consider legislation that would oblige digital broadcasters to carry public service information on the basis of a more equitable charging model, in order to safeguard the taxpayer's right to this information at a justifiable price.

  Government should encourage technical standardisation for iDTV broadcasting, in order to make the medium more accessible to public bodies and other content providers, thereby encouraging a higher quality and diversity of broadcasting.

  The effects that the "walled garden" model has on the diversity, quality and inclusivity of digital broadcasting should be addressed. The Agency recommends that implementation of a technical standard for iDTV should be accompanied by a legislated move to a single open broadcasting environment.

  Digital media should be promoted where standards are already in place (eg digital radio), to maximise the available benefit from these communications channels.

  Government should pursue the need to achieve blanket coverage of the UK in the form of digital broadcasts. Without this, Government bodies such as ourselves cannot fulfil our remit to be socially inclusive.

31 January 2002

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