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Thursday, June 07, 2007

OFCOM spiralling out of control

The news in the Guardian that H3G, O2 and BT are unhappy about mobile termination fees and taken the ruling to the competition appeal tribunal is hardly surprising given the amount of money at stake; however it illustrates the growing trend of industry dissent at the UK Communications regulator and basically ignoring its judgements.

Personally, I think the most radical recent example was Virgin Media’s decision to resort to law even before OFCOM had published its verdict on the PayTV market; this is despite OFCOM publicly stating that a vibrant cable industry is needed to counterbalance the powers of the copper and satellite networks.

Even more amazingly, it is not just the big boys who decide to go to court rather than listen to the regulator; the miniscule Rapture TV has decided to ignore the OFCOM rulings that Sky’s £80k annual access charges are reasonable and decided to pursue it further at the Competition Tribunal. (pdf CAT summary).

Also, I feel OFCOM has lost control of the outcome of “Digital Dividend Review” and the key players are already ignoring their process and instead directly lobbying the politicians. I feel whatever outcome OFCOM decides upon will inenvitably end up in the Courts of Law.

OFCOM presents an image of being a light touch regulator which is free from political influence. This is patent nonsense; anyone spending more than a nanosecond looking at the volume and content of its output will bear witness that OFCOM crawls over the every breath that the Communications Industry takes. The background of the OFCOM senior executives and direct politician lobbying translates into politics playing just as bigger role as it always has in deciding the future of the UK communications industry. Unfortunately, light touch non-political regulation is pure spin.

Most people would advise any government quango riding a huge gravy train is to keep out of the glare of the Great British Public. Unfortunately, OFCOM seems to love throwing fuel onto the fires of public opinion, with notable controversial interventions into Big Brother, Participation TV and Junk Food advertising. All of these polarise opinion and therefore any judgement is bound to annoy around half of the public. It only takes three or four decisions for OFCOM to have completely annoyed the whole of the UK.

Even worse, I think OFCOM is actively creating huge barriers to entry to anyone wishing to provide telephony and broadband services. It seems to me that unless someone has the large amounts of capital required to invest in unbundling with a decent coverage that they face a limited lifespan as a player in the residential market. The other side of this coin is that people choosing to live in a rural area will face a much more limited and more expensive choice of services – equivalence and universal service is about to bite the dust as a general concept.

Things wouldn’t be all bad if OFCOM kept a tight leash on the de-facto rural monopolist and forced them to keep prices reasonable and invest in vital new technologies. Unfortunately, OFCOM takes the exact opposite approach allowing BT to set whatever prices it dreams up and even more unbelievably echoes the sentiment of BT that fibre is only possible with a huge investment by UK plc ie the uk taxpayer.