UK: 'A New Future For Communications'

Last Updated: 17 April 2001

A White Paper Published 12 December 2000 by the Departments of Trade & Industry, and Culture Media & Sport

Summary Of Key Proposals

Background

The White Paper contains wide-ranging proposals for the convergence and reform of the regulatory frameworks currently applicable to telecoms, internet and broadcasting. Those proposals build upon a number of previous Government initiatives including A Fair Deal for Consumers: Modernising the Framework for Utility Regulation Green Paper (DTI, 1998), Regulating Communications: approaching convergence in the information age Green Paper (DTI, 1998), Modern Markets, Confident Consumers White Paper (DTI,1999); e-commerce its best Report (Cabinet Office, 1999), as well as the European Commission's Proposals for Common Regulatory Framework for Electronic Communications.

The White Paper’s key proposals are summarised below. Although the White Paper contains no indicative timetable (other than a commitment to legislate ‘at the earliest opportunity’), it seems likely implementing legislation would be in effect by 2002/3.

Key Proposals

New Regulatory Framework

  • Creation of new regulator, ‘OFCOM’:

 merging OFTEL, Independent Television Commission, Radiocommunications Agency, Broadcasting Standards Commission, Radio Authority & British Board of Film Classification (possibly);

 covering the ‘communications sector’ (telecoms, internet, and broadcasting);

 governed by small group of executive and non executive members;

 answerable to two ministries (DTI, DCMS)?

  • OFCOM will have a new set of ‘regulatory objectives’. Central to these will be:

 'protecting the interests of consumers in terms of choice, price, quality of service and value for money, in particular through promoting open and competitive markets;

 maintaining high quality of content, a wide range of programming, and plurality of expression;

 protecting the interests of citizens by maintaining accepted community standards in content..’

OFCOM ‘should also give weight to’ a number of other factors (eg prevention of crime, promotion of efficiency).

  • OFCOM’s powers & duties:

 concurrent Competition Act powers with Office of Fair Trading in respect of communications sector;

 additional sector specific powers to ‘promote effective competition in the communications services sectors for the benefit of consumers’;

 enhanced ‘regulatory powers’ (eg ability to levy fines for breaches of sector specific regulation);

 ‘ a principal duty to protect the interests of consumers and…powers to take action if the industry does not develop an effective consumer protection regime’; and

 duty to review markets/sectors and:

 ‘roll back regulation promptly when increasing competition make it unnecessary’; and

 encourage co-regulation and self-regulation where these will best achieve the regulatory objectives’.

Spectrum Issues

  • Government will:

 commission an independent review to advise on spectrum management principles, with a focus on encouraging efficient spectrum usage;

 ‘value’ the spectrum currently allocated to broadcasters and consider the application of spectrum pricing to them; and

 develop its previous proposals for market based spectrum trading.

Health/Environment Issues

  • Government will continue to ensure health issues (eg electro-magnetic radiation), and environmental issues (eg network rollout/streetworks) are ‘properly reflected in the regulatory framework’.

Specific Broadcasting Issues

  • Public service television channels (ie BBC, ITV, Ch4) to:

 remain free;

 be made available over cable & satellite; and

 be given due prominence on electronic programme guides etc.

  • Revocation of current Broadcasting Acts prohibitions on individual holding:

 two or more tv licences attracting >15% of total tv audience share (thus opening up the prospect for mergers of ITV companies); and

 both London ITV licences.

  • Consider revising the current ‘points system’ for radio ownership.
  • Comments invited on reform of the cross media ownership rules (but no specific proposals).

Content Issues

Broadcasting

  • Govt will introduce a new three tier system of regulation aimed at rationalising existing broadcasting regulatory regime:

- Tier 1:

    • will apply to all broadcasters, and will cover minimum negative content standards, advertising, news (impartiality etc), EC content quotas etc. Will be implemented via Codes developed by OFCOM , who will also handle complaints (as a last resort);

- Tiers 2 & 3:

    • will apply to public service broadcasters only, and cover requirements to provide a range of high quality content (eg regional, educational etc). Implemented via legislation (Tier 2), and industry self-regulation (Tier 3).
    • Where public service broadcasters broadcast material over the internet & via telephony, Tiers 1 – 3 will apply in addition to normal controls on internet content (ie general law and self-regulation eg Internet Watch Foundation).
    • Ban on political advertising will remain in relation to broadcasting, but will not be extended to other media.
    • OFCOM to regulate advertising in broadcast media – this could be done by a co-regulatory scheme eg similar to Advertising Standards Authority currently for non-broadcast media. Advertising on internet, cinema & video will continue to be regulated by ASA.

Electronic Communications

  • Legislation will contain a set of high level objectives and principles to apply to all content delivered by electronic communications (eg freedom of expression, protection of children, prevention of crime, protection of privacy, consumer protection etc). OFCOM will:

 apply these objectives through detailed rules – which will be implemented either by regulation or self-regulation depending on the nature of the medium concerned;

 work with existing bodies regulating harmful Internet content eg IWF; and

 may also take over pre-classification of cinema and video content from BBFC.

  • OFCOM will have powers to:

 commission attitudinal research on content issues;

 resolve complaints about:

 content where not resolved by the content provider ‘in a timely manner’; and

 unfair treatment or invasion of privacy (ie current BSC remit);

Other Consumer Protection Issues

  • Govt ‘challenges’ industry to:

 develop - before legislation - effective industry self-regulatory codes of practice for service delivery & effective redress. Code content could include standards for pre-contractual information, advertising, complaint handling, publicity, redress eg ombudsman scheme, sanctions etc; and

 work with it to use new technology to reduce crime (eg reduce attractiveness of tvs, videos, & mobiles to criminals).

  • Establishment of new consumer panel to research consumer views on service delivery issues (not content) and advise OFCOM.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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