This is a difficult time in the communications sector, both to do business and to regulate too.
Greater competition and new technology — not least the shift in emphasis from voice to data — pose challenges to existing business models, while for the consumer the increasingly complex array of devices, services and providers can be confusing.Where once we bought a phone or television on its looks, now we want to know what it can do. Can I connect to the internet, send emails, watch video, get high-definition pictures?
Ofcom recognises the scale of these challenges.We want to deliver the best outcomes for consumers and citizens and believe that can best be achieved by (a) sustaining and enhancing the competition that has been injected into the communications sectors in the past few years and (b) promoting efficient investment — especially in new networks.
One way to promote these twin objectives is to open up access to radio spectrum — the essential raw material for all our mobile, wireless and broadcast services. There is a limited amount of spectrum and our job is to make sure it is used efficiently. We are hopeful that new legislation will allow some of the frequencies used by the mobile networks to be used to deliver more 3G services.If successful, this could have particular relevance for Northern Ireland, where 3G coverage levels are the lowest in the UK.
Our work to open up BT’s copper network established genuine competition in fixed-line telephony and broadband. The challenge is to do the same for new ‘super-fast’ fibre-based broadband.The investment case in these next-generation networks is finely balanced. We want to promote investment but also want to maintain competition.So as BT rolls out its fibre network, we will ensure it is open to competitors so they too can provide super-fast broadband to their customers, and this principle should apply to other significant fibre rollouts.The super-fast broadband network being delivered through DETI’s contract with BT — a very good example of efficient public investment — is being provided on an open-access basis and will help support competition and innovation in Northern Ireland.
As more bundled services emerge and boundaries between the communications services we all use every day become less clear, Ofcom is concerned that switching providers might be getting too costly or just too much ‘hassle’ for consumers. We want to ensure that switching is convenient, low-cost and does not prevent providers competing vigorously with each other.
An emerging area where clear consumer information will be crucial is traffic management — where network operators and internet service providers control the flow of traffic over the internet. Traffic management allows networks and ISPs to handle traffic more efficiently, to prioritise traffic by type, to guarantee bandwidth or to block or downgrade the quality of certain content. However, there are concerns that networks could engage in anti-competitive behaviour and so new EU rules give regulators a clear responsibility to protect consumers’ interests. This is not about any new fundamental ‘right’ to the internet — those questions are for legislators and government — but about how we ensure consumers know what they are getting and can exercise choice accordingly.
Ultimately, it is companies, technology, investors and consumers, rather than regulators, which play the key roles in determining the outcomes in our market place. But regulatory decisions often set the framework in which these different factors determine the final outcome.