With this piece we seek to explore the nature of the regulatory structure of telecommunications within the UK as illustrated in the above diagram. The intention is an attempt at simplicity which is to look at national, EU and international regulation in turn.
However problems emerge in the sense that such dividing lines don’t truly exist – the EU for example is a fundamental part of the UK government, as is international governance. This becomes especially so with telecommunications. An example is that the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) has a direct relationship with the UK regulatory body The Office of Communications (Ofcom) as do indeed EU bodies such as COCOM.
So while we wish to deal with each in turn as an attempt to illustrate clearly the very complex world of telecommunications, we appreciate that there is a very fine line to be drawn between attempting simplicity and being inaccurate. With this in mind the above picture showing the EU as a separate ‘cloud’ and the following piece should be viewed with EU and international governance in mind, and as a consequence much overlap will occur over the next few pieces.
Yet even on just a domestic basis regulation is continually being updated, the above diagram was relevant until April 2014. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, merged the ineffectual Office of Fair Trade and Competition Commission (established in 1999) to create the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) meaning the diagram now looks more like this below:
Further domestic complexity was brought to the fore by the Scottish independence vote; that despite political and legislative devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there aren’t any formal mechanisms which involve the devolved legislatures with representation in telecoms governance and oversight.
Governance at a global, EU, ministerial and and regulator levels exclude representation from the UK’s four nations. For example in the Scotland Act 1998 which established a devolved Scottish Parliament, telecoms was kept as a “reserved” matter – a constitutional term meaning that it was to be decided by the UK Parliament as per Section C10:
- Telecommunications and wireless telegraphy.
- Internet services.
- Electronic encryption.
With Scotland rejecting independence recently, telecoms regulation remains a democratic challenge within the UK. Ofcom appointed the Advisory Committee for Scotland (ACS) to advise Ofcom “about the interests and opinions, in relation to communications matters, of persons living in Scotland.” However as only an advisory committee it sits to one side, unelected and unaccountable. The same lack of ‘devolution adjustment’ also applies to Wales and Northern Ireland. This could be consider unsatisfactory when telecoms across the UK have different needs with regard to rural location, broadband and 2G, 3G 4G mobile phone access.
Thus not unsurprisingly, with this in mind, the demand for an independent Scotland to have a say in telecommunications regulation was made in its White Paper, Scotland’s Future – Your Guide to an Independent Scotland (page 276):
The government of an independent Scotland will have the powers to properly prioritise the needs of rural Scotland in relation to telecommunications…
Scotland’s dissatisfaction with regard to a lack of representation laid bare on page 311 (my emphasis):
We have also felt the impact of other decisions in communications policy that did not take account of Scotland’s circumstances. When 3G mobile licences were auctioned in 2000, an initial coverage target of 80 per cent of the UK population was set. This was increased to 90 per cent of the UK population in December 2010. Despite the efforts of the Scottish Government, a distinct Scottish target was not set. Currently, 3G coverage in Scotland is the lowest of the four UK nations, reaching only 96 per cent on the most optimistic estimates.
Furthermore, there is a disparity between urban and rural Scotland. Coverage in rural Scotland drops to as low as 92 per cent, demonstrating that there will always be poorer coverage in rural areas unless these areas are given priority in allocating licences.
A contrast could be considered between the lack of telecoms representation by Scotland within Ofcom and with Ofcom’s broadcasting responsibility – where the BBC, with its Audience Council Scotland, has a representative member for Scotland on the BBC Trust which is currently Bill Matthews.
To explain Ofcom’s lack of coherence we can see that one of the notably observations taken from the above graph as indicated by the arrows is that in terms of its relationships with other interested regulatory bodies Ofcom has a prominent central role to play in UK communications regulation. But it is a role that is always inconsistent.
The lack of consistency has been a consequence of a lively mix of ever evolving nature of technology, of the growth of “regulator watching” and of the ever integration of the EU and international considerations.
Domestically the implementation of privatisation of previously nationalised industries under Margaret Thatcher led to a growth of “regulator watching” with often mixed success for the customer, and this was particularly apparent in telecoms.
Ofcom’s predecessor was the telecoms regulator Oftel. Oftel was established under the 1984 Telecoms Act which had privatised the telecoms market, known as the “Abolition of British Telecommunications’ exclusive privilege”. It was the first major privatisation by the then Conservative government.
Oftel was often accused, particularly towards the end of its regulatory life, of being very sympathetic to BT and with good reason. BT’s relationship with the regulator Oftel was one of “coercive-diplomacy” rather than a telecoms company being more subservient to an assertive telecoms regulator.
The relative impotency of Oftel largely stemmed from BT remaining intact instead of being broken up; a decision which reflected the government’s view on maximising proceeds from shares and future tax revenues on what was the world’s biggest telecommunication company. But by remaining effectively as a monopolist telecoms company BT had every incentive to exclude competition by refusing interconnection between networks or threatening competition by fixing interconnection charges as high as possible.
So what followed was “coercive diplomacy” between the powerful monopolistic BT and its less powerful regulator. This somewhat uneven conflict was particularly encouraged by modifications to BT’s operating licenses. BT was entitled to reject licence modifications proposed by Oftel under Section 12A of the 1984 Telecoms Act.
Thus despite privatisation, many difficulties were experienced by other companies attempting to enter a market wholly dominated by BT, particularly with its inherent well established infrastructure. A problem acknowledged by Oftel itself in its 1st report of 1984:
BT is competing in a large number of spheres of activity in the telecommunications industry from a position of significant strength, resulting from such factors as its established reputation and its established customer base supported by a selling organisation of extensive scope. Understandably many organisations have been apprehensive about the possibility of effect competition in this situation.
Problematic regulation and promotion of competition could also be seen when Mercury (Cable and Wireless) obtained its licence in 1985.
According to condition 13.1 of BT’s licence at the time, any competitor which had been licensed had to enter into a connection agreement with BT to run a connectable system and therefore needed connection to BT’s network. BT’s reluctance to succeeded a measure of market share became apparent in 1985 when Mercury and BT had failed to agree terms for a connection contract.
So Mercury applied to the Director General of Telecommunications (DGT) to make a ruling under the conditions 13.5 and 13.6 of the BT licence. However while the outcome eventually favoured Mercury, who had incurred significant financial costs, the difficulties of overcoming BT’s market place dominance meant that UK privatisation of telecommunications remained little more than a duopoly until the early ’90s.
BT’s dominance as underpinned by Section 12A meant it could bypass Oftel by threatening to force the issue to go for consideration by the then Mergers and Monopolies Commission (MMC) – a body which was eventually replaced by the Competition Commission in 1999, (given further powers under the Enterprise Act 2002) and then itself replace by the CMA.
By going to the MMC then open up the possibility of third party challenges to the cosy and convenient alliance of both BT and Oftel. Thus at the time Section 12A gave both strong incentives to negotiate terms to avoid uncertainties outside the charmed world of telecommunications that a third party may induce. The threat of a big stick in the guise of MMC gave each party a mechanism which could be used to bear down pressure on the other.
As a result Oftel was to suffer from “regulatory capture” by BT, eventually becoming as a regulator unfit for purpose. A successor was needed to further open up the telecoms market to competition. That came in the form of Ofcom whose prominence as the major regulator was established by The Communications Act 2003 (TCA)
Yet it was less Oftel’s failings as a regulator that led to its demise but more a need to implement a number of EU directives into UK law which resulted in the Communications Act – EU Directives which unsurprisingly sought to further harmonise communications regulation across the European Union under the guise of modernisation but naturally implied a further step towards EU integration. Such EU Directives included; Directive 2002/19/EC, Directive 2002/21/EC, and Directive 2002/22/EC.
Using these EU Directives the then Labour government established Ofcom which inherited the duties of five separate other former regulators – the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC) the Independent Television Commission (ITC), Oftel, the Radio Authority and the Radio Communications Agency.
Out of the TCA Ofcom became a “super regulator” and it comes as no surprise given Ofcom’s inheritance that it was criticised for having “a too wide a brief“. Not for the first time this was less a reflection of EU law and more the habitual enthusiasm of UK governments to gold plate EU law. Thus we have to query whether the initial establishment of Ofcom needed such a wide brief to comply with EU law or whether it was the political nature of the then Labour government which had unwelcome habit of reliance on big state solutions.
However it was not only the wide ranging powers that posed Ofcom problems but the inconsistency of those powers. Despite inheriting the briefs of the ITC, BSC and the Radio Authority it became clear that Ofcom was to have limitations in certain areas for domestic political reasons.
During the Parliamentary debate in 2002 on the Telecommunications Bill, Labour MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell argued in support of the Bill that:
Finally, part 5 gives Ofcom tough competition powers to act concurrently with the Office of Fair Trading. Ofcom will be able to use general competition powers, but we are also retaining, very importantly, sector-specific competition rules for broadcasting—a vital part of protecting markets that do not deliver key policy objectives purely by leaving them to competition alone. Ofcom will have flexibility to use sector-specific powers, but it will not use them where it would be more appropriate for it to use general competition powers.
Reading carefully Tessa Jowell’s statement indicates very clearly that the BBC was not to be fully within the remit of Ofcom a single independent regulator for the UK’s broadcast media. From the outset its creation is fatally flawed as long as the biggest and most powerful broadcaster is not fully under the supervision of the independent regulator for the UK communications industries.
Other issues which became apparent with the TCA 2003, as is typical of the UK’s relationship with the EU, was that it took advantage of EU legislation as an excuse to go further with lawmaking and introduce other controversial parts. An example being, Section 127 of the Act 2003 which makes it:
…an offence to make improper use of a public electronic communications network such as grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or annoying phone calls and emails.
This was used notoriously used against Paul Chambers who joked on Twitter that he would “blow Doncaster airport sky high”, a charge which he was subsequently cleared by the Supreme Court in London.
With Ofcom we can see that a consequence of a national regulatory body emboldened by new powers is that they purse paths different from government national bodies unhindered. In the UK this was reflected by Ofcom’s decision in 2003 having been established by the TCA 2003, in response to the telecommunications market developing rapidly, to conduct what it called a ‘root-and-branch’ strategic review of the regulatory regime.
Unlike its predecessor Ofcom, determined to breakup BT’s monopoly further, concluded in 2005 a major strategic review of the fixed telecommunications sector by using its separate powers under the Enterprise Act 2002 – itself a result of EU Directives. The objective of the review was to determine whether the sector was suffering from competition problems of such a persistent nature that they could not easily be remedied using Ofcom’s specific market review powers under the TCA.
The outcome of the strategic review meant that BT offered a host of undertakings to Ofcom by which it agreed to set up a separate network access division called Openreach (a so-called “BT group business”) and also to offer its wholesale products on an equivalent basis to both external customers (Cable and Wireless, Carphone Warehouse etc) and its own downstream divisions. The undertakings have brought about a fundamental shift in the way in which BT had conduct business with all its customers, meaning all were now on a more equal footing in terms of wholesale access.
Thus despite the EU inspiration behind TCA and the Enterprise Act, from a regulatory perspective, the establishment of Openreach and its relationship to external customers is currently unique to the UK and is being actively studied by regulators in other European countries who experience similar competition problems arising from the presence of a large incumbent telecommunications operator.
The term “super-regulator” though does not mean Ofcom is the only regulator when it involves telecommunications, there are at least sixteen others and the list below demonstrates with great clarity the criticism that Ofcom has a brief which is too wide, and a reflection of the diversity of telecoms: it has its tentacles everywhere:
1) Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)
2) Telephony Preference Service (TPS)
3) Ombudsman Services
4) Communications and Internet Services Adjudication Scheme
6) Internet Watch Foundation (IWF)
7) UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS)
8) UK Safer Internet Centre
9) Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)
10) NICC – UK home of network interoperability standards
11) Go On UK – “empowering everyone in the UK to reach their digital potential”
12) NGN UK – dormant now part of OTA
13) Office of the Telecommunications Adjudicator (OTA)
14) Gambling Commission
15) Information Commissioner’s Office
16) British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)
Not surprisingly with sixteen different organisations we have a complex mixture of Ofcom approved and EU financed regulatory structures. An example of the myriad structure can be found with the Internet Watch Foundation which came to media attention when it censored a Wikipedia page over an entry regarding an album cover by the German band The Scorpions. Here we see a registered charity, which works very closely with Ofcom (although Ofcom has no powers to regulate the internet) and receives EU funding. Susie Hargreaves the Chief Executive has also joined the BBFC’s Consultative Council.
Further evidence of the diversity and Ofcom’s overreaching remit comes via the Advertising Standards Agency which describes a system as being one of “co-regulation of broadcast advertising” – it is self-regulation within a co-regulatory framework. It is underpinned by an enabling statutory instrument, The Contracting Out (Functions Relating to Broadcast Advertising) and Specification of Relevant Functions Order 2004 and a formal Deed between Ofcom and the ASA (Broadcast), BCAP and Basbof.
Interestingly Ruth Sawtell who is on ASA Council is also a non-executive director of PhonepayPlus, the regulator of premium rate telephone services.
In addition to the hydra nature of Ofcom, and its regulatory offspring, telecommunications are also responsibilities imbued within various government ministries and the agencies for which they are responsible, requiring within government itself a need for coordination as the table below illustrates (click to enlarge):
Thus it’s apparent that even on a domestic basis telecoms regulation is diverse, overlapping and often incoherent. In the next piece we will move our focus away from domestic regulatory structures and turn our sights on the EU’s role in UK telecommunications regulation.