UK telecoms policy moves government department as proposals for new Communications Act announced

In a week of Westminster resignations, with Andy Coulson accused of condoning mobile voicemail hacking and Ed Balls taking over as Chancellor you may be forgiven for having missed a couple of lower-key announcements. With Vince Cable professionally embarrassed from ruling on whether News can take a 100 per cent ownership interest in BSkyB, we knew that responsibility for taking that decision would be moving from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), but we learnt this week that rather more than is required to avoid the Sky issue has transfered from BIS to DCMS.

In a DCMS press release this week they explained, “Competition and policy issues relating to media, broadcasting, digital and telecoms sectors are now the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport.

This includes:

  • merger and competition cases in these sectors
  • sponsorship of the telecoms sector, both mobile and fixed
  • sponsorship of all content industries, including computer games and publishing
  • telecoms policy, including implementation of the EU framework
  • broadband policy and delivery (including Broadband Delivery UK)
  • internet policy and governance, including implementation of the Digital Economy Act
  • spectrum (the airwaves used for transmitting information, including radio, television and mobile phones)
  • BT Pension Crown Guarantee
  • responsibility for sponsorship of Ofcom (except in relation to postal regulation)
  • full responsibility for the Digital TV switchover and Digital Radio Action Plan.”

Following the transfer of his responsibilities, Ed Vaizey ceases to be a joint BIS/DCMS minister and transfers to DCMS.

BIS retains “postal regulation; sponsorship of telecoms equipment manufacturing and the wider electronics, IT services and software sectors and will continue to work with the Cabinet Office as part of the National Cyber-Security Programme.”

For sector watchers this addresses (at least until Postcomm is merged into Ofcom) one longstanding structural problem with the UK regulatory structure: that fact that two government departments have been responsible for Ofcom, with consequential lack of clarity over policy objectives. Although I strongly doubt that the consultation has had any influence whatsoever over this decision that increased clarity is in line with the economic regulatory best practices consultation currently being carried out and discussed in a previous post.

The change to single departmental responsibility will likely also give focus to the debate on a new Communications Act announced this week in a speech at the Oxford Media Convention by Jeremy Hunt. Despite the UK’s lack of freedom to independently progress telecoms (or to be more precise electronic communications networks and services) regulation (as it is subject to a harmonised European Common Regulatory Framework), the speech not only addressed the issues of local news, public service content but also picked up on the issues of fibre-based ‘superfast broadband’ network and platform neutral regulation as issues to be considered.

How much of the speech is political rhetoric remains to be seen, but I reproduce below a key section of the speech that seems to envisage potentially dramatic change:
“I want to hear how a new Communications Act can create regulatory certainty.

The certainty that people need to continue to develop and invest in the high-quality technology and content that is made here but enjoyed by people all over the world.
I am prepared to radically rethink the way we do things.

To take a fresh look at what we regulate, whether we regulate, and how we regulate. To consider whether there are areas we might move out of regulation altogether. And to think hard about what we mean by public service content.

As parents we want programmes to be suitable for our children. As citizens we want impartial news. And as consumers we want high-quality programmes we know and trust.

Whether we’re watching a broadcast live or though catch-up services, via a TV or a computer, it’s the content that matters, rather than the delivery mechanism.
So should it continue to be the case that the method of delivery has a significant impact on the method of regulation? Or should we be looking at a more platform-neutral approach?

What do we need to do to help our businesses grow and evolve between now and 2025? Where can regulation help and where is it a barrier? What can we do collectively to enhance the whole UK market?

This is not about tweaking the current system, but redesigning it – from scratch if necessary – to make it fit for purpose.

On the basis of what we hear from you, we will publish a Green Paper at the end of the year that will set out the full scope of a Bill.

One that will be put in place in 2015 and that will last for at least a decade.”

I’ll keep you posted as this story develops, and if you have an interest you should be talking to Jeremy and his team now.