New Communications Bill To Review Role Of Ofcom

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The communications industry could be moving towards self-regulation, diminishing Ofcom’s powers

Members of the UK communications industry are calling on the government to avoid heavy-handed regulation that could stunt future growth and innovation in the sector, in the forthcoming Communications Bill.

Speaking at a Westminster Media Forum in London today, Google’s head of UK public policy, Sarah Hunter, said that the new bill should “protect the open platforms that the Internet has, and that content providers need.” She said that, in particular, the government needs to take a “sensible approach” to data protection, so as to preserve the open nature of the Internet.

Her thoughts were echoed by David Wheeldon, director of policy and public affairs at BSkyB, who said that as competition grows, the commercial incentive for innovation becomes greater, and the need for state intervention decreases. He added that regulation of emerging platforms, such as online TV, should be proportionate, and be taken within a global context.

Jeremy Hunt seeks industry advice

Back in May, the secretary of state for culture, olympics, media and sport Jeremy Hunt (pictured) wrote an open letter asking for views on how a communications regulatory framework could best keep pace with industry change, and establish the UK communications market as amongst the most dynamic and successful in the world.

The deadline for responses has now passed, and the government plans to publish a summary of the responses, as well as a Green Paper, at the end of the year. However, the overarching message from representatives from the TV, mobile and online sectors is that the Communications Bill should encourage competition and protect the industry from stifling legislation.

The bill could have major implications for the communications regulator Ofcom – which was set up in 2002, and operates under the last Communications Act 2003 (which is so outdated it doesn’t even mention the word ‘Internet’). If wide-scale deregulation of the communications industry takes place as a result of the new Communications Bill, alongside a growing culture of self-regulation, Ofcom’s powers could be significantly diminished.

According to Simon Milner, BT’s director of industry policy, however, the new Bill must not undermine the ability of Ofcom to do its job.

“The purpose of communications regulation should be to enable markets to serve and empower citizens and consumers. And what we need is a well equipped regulator that has the ability to use its powers flexibly, to define markets as they converge and change, and to analyse the market behaviour to understand whether it’s benefiting consumers,” said Milner.

Victim of its own success?

He qualified this by saying that the addition of copyright protection into Ofcom’s powers under the Digital Economy Act was a mistake, and it would have made more sense for Ofcom to have been given powers of right to market.

“Ofcom is a good regulator. It is one of the success stories of our industry over the last decade,” he said. “But ministers need to be careful that they don’t allow it to become the victim of its own success by giving it responsibilities that fit oddly with its corporates.”

Hamish MacLeod, chair of the Mobile Broadband Group, also said that a future act will have to place more emphasis on the promotion of competition. He advocated self-regulation where appropriate, but warned that further measures will be necessary in cases where the issue extends beyond national barriers.

“The government should resist the temptation to repeat the structure of the Digital Economy Act, by which I mean to regulate indirectly by placing obligation on those with physical presence in the UK, but to get at people who are overseas.”

The Conservative party had threatened to abolish Ofcom ahead of the election last year, as part of a wider cull of quangos, which saw the end of school IT agency Becta and the Institute for Web Science, among others.

However, Ofcom seems to have returned to favour, today announcing the launch of an interactive broadband map that ranks areas of the country according to availability of superfast broadband, average broadband take-up, and the percentage of homes with broadband currently not receiving 2Mbps speeds.

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