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An action plan for Ofcom

Turning the retriever into a greyhound

Industry comment The government had its heart in the right place in consolidating all the major communications agencies into one. Broadly speaking, Ofcom has done relatively well, whether its palace of a reception area cost half its yearly budget or not. LLU lines are growing rapidly, our digital television market is the most developed in the world, and a sensibly conservative attitude to new technologies is being enforced. Generally, the regulator has been sensitive to commercial interests, but it could do so much more.

The most striking absence you immediately notice in any office, committee, or working group in Westminster is vision. It’s almost like some of these mandarin houses are aimlessly drifting through each waiting to be told what to do. Vision gets you from A to B, by telling you where B actually is. Without it, we are directionless and impotent. The UK’s point B is so vague that we rely on the ideas of ministers who have trouble using email, let alone understanding the new technologies that will affect our lives in the coming future. Vision requires you to listen, think and imagine. It means looking over the treetops to see the forest.

Our vision should be of a digital world where broadband internet connectivity is universally available everywhere, for everyone, at any time, on any device. Our economy needs to adapt to the changing face of global knowledge-based business by being entirely digital, forcing prices down every minute of the day (not squeezing the last pennies out of people), and empowering people to create innovative new products and services. Vision means we work out where point B is, without necessarily knowing immediately how we are going to get there. We need to define our mission, our target, and where we want our country to be in the next 20 years in detail greater than is offered by superficial political pledges delivered for their feel-good factor.

Create a working group for next-generation technology (IPTV)

The world is ablaze with talk of IPTV, IMS infrastructure and a new generation of entertainment services that will offer everyone an entirely new level of choice and personalisation, but despite all the talent and mind-power collected in Southwark and Parliament Square, Westminster hasn’t noticed. Or if it has, it's not too interested in talking about it. New services and platforms require support from governmental organisations, and often take their lead from them in many ways.

Without wanting to state the obvious, the future requires foresight. Foresight comes from time spent mulling the state of play and where the next movements will be made. Time requires resources and investment, and they are needed everywhere, all the time. Ofcom is a consolidated agency formed from the ruins of a number of different agencies such as the ITC, Oftel and radio regulators. The internet as a whole falls under telecommunication but has no real representation.

We need a very specific division and/or working group responsible for issuing guidance, reporting growth on, solving problems and chairing debate on converged media systems such as IP telephony, universal connectivity, IPTV and media on-demand. This group needs to intimately liaise with legislators, technicians, executives and proponents involved with the deployment of these platforms and services, for the purposes of aggressively encouraging their creation, and managing their contribution to both the UK’s digital ecosystem and larger overall economy.

Increase terrestrial TV capacity tenfold

In the recent past, technical advances in statistical multiplexing, as well as clever smoke and mirror timesharing (e.g. CBeebies/BBC Three) have given us additional channels on the DVB-T platform. Switching the last analogue signal over to compressed digital in 2012 will also free up a large degree of bandwidth for new channels and services. The television spectrum is still used according to a plan originally prepared in the late 1950s, and Ofcom is currently looking at ways to maximise the use of the newly freed airwaves as part of its Digital Dividend Review.

Our friends across the channel have made no secret of their plans to supercede the now geriatric MPEG-2 specification with MPEG-4, which is the compression profile of choice in IPTV systems. It’s also roughly two to three times more efficient than its predecessor, and it allows a whole new world of quality and interactivity. What we need is RF bandwidth as a commodity, as we lack it so desperately now. Our emphasis should be on enabling the widest range of services to be deployed across the country. There are naturally technical caveats which complicate this (some considerably so), but the point is a greater one of direction and vision. We need more space (orders of magnitude more), better compression, and easier access. IP-based transmission, wide-area wireless return channel and 3G-style IMS architecture are all ambitious but exciting objectives.

Force ITV, C4 and Five to broadcast in the clear

We don’t have true competition in the digital satellite TV sector, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you anything else. Sky has contractual agreements with all the main public service broadcasters (except the BBC, who opened up its signals a few years ago) that require them to scramble their TV signal with their specific conditional access system (called ‘Videoguard’) so that only Sky subscribers are able to watch it. Sky's objective is to get its viewing cards and encryption system into every home, as this is the fundamental basis of its media power.

You may hear a lot of fluff that the encryption is there to allow broadcasters to geographically limit who sees what, because of the limited viewing rights they have obtained from content owners – French people aren’t allowed to hijack the signal and watch a movie that was only licensed for a British audience and vice versa. The truth is that when you have an audience the size of one of our public service broadcasters in a market as advanced and saturated as the UK, rights holders are the ones who stand to lose the most by trying to mandate those types of limits.

Sky’s FreeSat From Sky service is offered as a “lite” version of the service that a viewer can upgrade later to full premium content. You simply cannot build a satellite platform to rival the likes of Sky without all five main broadcasters; in fact there is no-one who will ever try. If these channels were broadcast “in the clear” (i.e. without encryption), anyone would be able to pick them up and competitors to Sky would spring up offering free satellite services, like FreeSat that the BBC and ITV are promoting. As Murdoch wins politicians’ elections, don’t expect to see any word from Ofcom too soon on this.

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