An opportunity for less, not more, regulation

Regulation is often claimed as one of the great panaceas of our age. Every problem and abuse, followers of this new religion would have us believe, is capable of being regulated out of existence. Why, once the right regulatory structure and safeguards were put in place, it was even possible to privatise the water and electricity industries. Never mind a few failings here and there along the way, on the whole it works, proponents insist.

Against this background, it is perhaps unsurprising that those in the business of regulating should be looking for ways of further extending an already growing empire. The brave new world of multi-media seems to offer a god-given opportunity; Oftel, the telecommunications watchdog, is reaching out to grab it with both hands.

We should not, however, be too hard on Don Cruickshank, director-general of Oftel. His office has managed to produce a detailed, informed and illuminating consultation document on the regulation in this area. At a time when the market is clearly moving far ahead of regulators, it is encouraging to see signs of careful thought from those normally deemed to be woefully lagging.

It is encouraging, too, that Mr Cruikshank shies away from too onerous a regulatory framework, preferring to allow the market to read the signals, make the adjustments, and meet the demands of consumers. Wherever possible, that is surely the right approach. The aim must be less regulation, not more of it.

But there are two dangers in what Oftel is proposing. First, the initiative could well set off a debilitating battle for jurisdiction with another regulator, the Independent Television Commission.

Both the ITC and Oftel have seen fit in recent weeks to push for a greater statutory role in the regulation of multi-media, claiming that their respective industries - broadcasters and telecoms service providers - are moving quickly toward converging "content" and "carriage". The last thing these industries need is a turf war. The City has been greatly harmed and discredited by division and duplication among squabbling regulators.

More important in the long term, however, is the kind of regulation Britain needs. One school has it that regulating the information highway is an impossible and pointless task; aside from insisting on minimum rules to enforce competition (already in place and enforceable by the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission), governments should get out of the way. On that view, not only should we do away with the ITC - surely the subliminal, if not the explicit, message of the Oftel consultation document, at least when it comes to the ITC's role in the awarding of broadcasting licences - but Oftel should go too.

That approach may appear appealing to regulatory minimalists. Get the distribution network right - fair and equitable access for all suppliers and a common standard to allow "inter-operability" among infrastructures - and 10,000 flowers will bloom. Those more concerned about content, quality and universal access ask: Who will be the gardeners? Who will plant and cull, pluck and arrange? Do we really want a free-for-all along the information highway?

Mr Cruickshank is right to think that regulating will be a difficult task in the digital age, and may require a reformulation of the rules governing the sector. An artifical division between broadcasting and telecommunications is obviously unsustainable if we are to have video-on-demand, interactive home shopping and other products and services of the digital future.

Better, then, to have one regulator handling the nuts and bolts of the market - the questions of access, of inter-operability, of cross-ownership - regardless of whether the supplier is a broadcaster or a telecoms operator. The ITC, for its part, may or may not need to survive as a "standards" watchdog, ferreting out unacceptable content and imposing regional or local thresholds.

The Labour Party has suggested an "Ofcom" to regulate the market in the post-convergence world, and a revamped ITC to oversee more politically charged issues such as content and quality. This may well be a model worth retaining, whatever one's view of the rest of Labour's policy on the information highway.

Mr Cruickshank has explored the complicated world of what his office infelicitously calls "broadband switched mass-market systems" and has pointed a way foward for their regulation. That way must not be to over- regulate by allowing Oftel and the ITC to poach on each other's territory. Combining the existing two offices as they stand in a new monolith would be equally unsatisfactory. What is needed is a new, slimmed-down regulator.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Guru Careers: Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant

£16 - 20k: Guru Careers: A Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant is needed to ...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Day In a Page

Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf