Developments in digitisation, data and connectivity, evolving consumer preferences and disruptive corporate strategies will transform the environment in which many Prospect members work, says Philippa Childs.
Cast your mind back a decade – Taylor Swift was already on her second album, Daniel Craig was promoting his second Bond film and Mad Men was into its second series.
But it was a different world. Most of us still bought our music on CDs, our films on DVDs and watched television as it was broadcast – most of it via analogue signal (unless we’d bought a box set that really did come in a box).
Almost half the country still had no access to broadband and many still had to hang up the phone if they wanted to go online.
The iPhone had only been available for a year and the iPad tablet wouldn’t be for another two.
Facebook had fewer users than MySpace and was yet to turn a profit, while Netflix was a mail-order film rental business.
Now think ahead ten years. BT’s voice network will have been switched off and terrestrial TV broadcast is set to end in 2030.
Almost all our communication, information and entertainment will be live-streamed over the internet to portable or wifi-enabled devices.
Mobile phones will be just a small part of the “internet of things”. Domestic appliances, industrial machinery and supply chains, and critical national infrastructure will all be connected and controlled through the internet.
According to some predictions, the distinction between media and telecommunications companies will have collapsed as telecoms companies get more heavily into distributing, acquiring and producing TV content.
The line between telecoms and energy companies could also become blurred. The smart grid should be a reality and multi-utility firms are expected to bundle an ever-widening range of services and subscriptions together.
But all this speculation is overshadowed by the presence of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – FAANGs.
They stand ready to corner the market in “smart home” technologies and will be able to conjure up production budgets many times the size of Europe’s established broadcasters.
Unlike Europe’s biggest utilities, they are relatively unregulated and largely untaxed. Some see them as a threat to public service broadcasting or domestically-oriented programming. And their potential monopoly power puts our current debates about BT or the “Big Six” into a very different perspective.
This is the world of convergence – where accelerating technological developments in digitisation, data and connectivity are combining with evolving consumer preferences and disruptive corporate strategies to transform the environment in which many Prospect members work.
This will present challenges – but also huge opportunities for a union that is uniquely placed to recruit, organise and campaign on behalf of skilled workers across this fast-changing landscape.
The transition is already well underway – from BT’s established position in television production to Scottish and Southern Energy’s provision of broadband services and Telefonica’s role in the smart meter programme.
A look around the globe confirms that the forces at work are international. Firms from Orange to AT&T are getting into the movie business; Deutsche Telekom is converting 12,000 old distribution boxes into electric car charging stations and US analysts are predicting that “the future smart grid utility will resemble a telecommunication company in every aspect”.
Winners and losers
Many questions remain about how far and fast this will go and who the winners and losers might be.
For example, telecoms companies with traditional strengths in research and engineering will face new creative challenges in building brands and devising packages that audiences will find compelling.
Yet their financial scale may give them a better chance of surviving a competition with the new tech giants than traditional public service or pay-TV broadcasters.
Prospect’s influential role in energy and telecommunications gives it a privileged vantage point from which to develop joined-up thinking about their similarities and interconnections.
The merger with BECTU, the media and entertainment union, also creates exciting possibilities for a strategic approach to the convergence of the telecoms, broadcasting and audio-visual production industries.
This year’s Prospect conference gives delegates from across these sectors the opportunity to explore how we can build on this position.
What are the workforce implications of these scenarios? What skills are going to be most in demand – and which could become automated or obsolete?
Will employers look to meet these needs internally or outsource them to contractors, consultancies or “cloud” services?
How will increased or intensified competition from new entrants affect wages and terms and conditions?
What responses should Prospect be lobbying for from government or regulators?
The future will certainly surprise us. But the current and future workforce of these sectors will be better placed to navigate and prosper if there is a strong union speaking up for their interests.
Their expertise will also help policymakers and the public understand the extraordinary possibilities – and the risks – that lie ahead of us.