The Government this week announced the biggest shake-up of communications and broadcast regulation for a decade.
In a bid to mirror the rapid convergence of telecoms and broadcast technology, ministers aim to create a single regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) covering communications, computing and broadcasting.
By 2002, e-minister Patricia Hewitt told Computer Weekly, Ofcom will replace the telecoms regulator Oftel, the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Communication Agency, Radio Authority and Broadcasting Standards Council.
But she confirmed the heavily criticised Oftel would be responsible for seeing through the unbundling of the local loop, adding that the Government had recently boosted Oftel's powers.
The new body will be charged with promoting competition in communications and broadcasting. Hewitt said Ofcom would offer a light regulatory touch. It will be able to levy heavy fines for anti-competitive behaviour through powers it will share with the Office of Fair Trading.
Hewitt said the Government understood the need for clout to ensure equal access to broadband infrastructure.
Citing the delayed roll-out of the local loop, the minister said, "The powers we put into Ofcom will be stronger than those Oftel currently has."
And she dismissed concerns that creating a super-regulator would lead to loss of focus on infrastructure issues.
"We think the new organisation will benefit from having people who come from competition background, a content background, a spectrum background," said Hewitt.
David Harrington, director general, of the Communica-tions Management Association gave the proposals a cautious welcome.
"It is important that any regulatory body has the will to act as well as having powerful deterrents and the ability to apply these very swiftly," said Harrington.
"There is nothing wrong with the idea of bringing regulation of communications and content together, but how it operates is key."
The Communications White Paper also holds out the prospect of government cash to help develop broadband networks in areas where telcos are proving reluctant to invest.
However, Hewitt specifically ruled out extending the public service requirement for universal voice access to cover broadband.
Computer Weekly comment
Setting up one regulator for both content and networks is a big gamble. The argument that, since media are converging, regulation must converge is correct. But it does not follow that we need a single body to prevent bad language on The Bill and bring cheap ADSL to Pembrokeshire.
Top of the wish list for all non-media business will still be: lower prices and a transparent market for telecoms services; greater competition in the leased line market; the rapid opening of the radio spectrum for business use. But these will not be top of the list for Ofcom, which will be dominated by concerns about broadcasting. Ominously, comms regulation is left to section 8 of a nine-section summary of the White Paper.
The Internet Mark II will not be like today's free lunch. Consumers will have to pay for high-quality content and bandwidth. The long-term planning of telcos and media giants will focus on how to generate profit from a package of communications, content and services.
Telcos are queuing up to offer a bundle of broadband lines, mobile accounts, business services and rented software. There is a significant danger that these will become monopolistic "walled gardens", and service providers must be watched like hawks. Can Ofcom do it? Let the consultation begin.