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Ofcom’s Annual Plan – light on details but broadly positive

Sharon White

To be fair to the UK watchdog, the full plan won’t be released for a couple of weeks, but this morning’s ‘meeting to plan a meeting’ at least showed some positive steps forward.

And it certainly promises to be a busy one for Ofcom. “This will be the first full year, where we are equally weighted media and economic regulator,” said CEO Sharon White at an event at Ofcom Towers in London.

This is perhaps one of the explanations for the blue-sky thinking with a lack of foundation. The regulator currently has 27 on-going work programmes, with plans to introduce another 43, and this doesn’t yet take account for various parts of the online world, where Ofcom is trying to figure out what its role actually is. There does seem to be a lot of work going on, and here’s hoping there isn’t too much to chew. Perhaps that was the reason for this morning’s detail-light meeting; showing the industry there is work going on behind the scenes.

But onto the actual plan itself. “Investment is absolutely at its heart,” said Strategy Director Clive Carter.

Whether it is improving competition or quality of service, Ofcom’s plan seems to be growing teeth over the next twelve months. While competition between the telcos is one way in ensuring a fair price point for the consumer, Carter conceded Ofcom will have to plan a more active role in the community. For the telcos, this might be a bit concerning, but for everyone else, who might view the watchdog as a bit of a passive dinosaur, it certainly is a good statement of intent.

But where might this dream of proactivity become a reality; spectrum allocation and coverage obligations are a few thoughts.

“There is an enduring concern that there are some parts of the UK have poor coverage,” said Spectrum Policy Director Charles Jenne, in perhaps one of the largest understatements of the year.

Considering the hype around the upcoming spectrum auction, this might not be the worst idea in the world, but how effective Ofcom are at enforcing it remains to be seen. During the allocation of various spectrum assets, Ofcom would also tie in obligations for the telcos to improve mobile coverage. This is not just speeds, but also quality of service, reliability and robustness of the network.

Of course, one of the most pressing issues of the day received very little attention; the decision was only made before Christmas after all. The Universal Service Obligation, which BT fought bitterly to prevent, will be a prominent feature over the next 12 months. Despite it being mentioned several times during the briefing, details on what it would look like, timelines and milestones remained elusive. It is only early days, but there was a bit of posturing taking place.

FTTH was another topic, as Sharon White conceded the UK is lagging behind other nations with its digital infrastructure. Admittedly, the reference to how far ahead counties like Japan and South Korea are was only a passing nod, but there was a hint this is an area Ofcom might be getting a bit more bullish. Could the watchdog be getting ready to force telcos onto a fibre diet and drop the copper addiction?

There were other priorities brought to attention. Everything from BBC regulation, workforce diversity, landline switching, service quality reports, the Wholesale Pricing Review, reforms of Openreach, ducts and poles access and enforcing the transition from copper to fibre. But again, few details were actually mentioned. In fact, “more details will be coming out soon” was probably the most commonly used phrase across the morning.

To ensure fairness, we should once again reiterate the final plan will be coming out in a couple of weeks, though the sheer volume of work the watchdog is undertaking is a little bit worrying. Government bodies, especially those associated with the telco space, are not the most efficient (noted, sometimes this is due to meddling/lawsuits from the telcos), therefore expanding responsibilities with some substantial projects is slightly concerning.

The 2018/19 agenda will be out in a couple of weeks, with hopefully a bit more clarity.

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