Cruickshank urges telecoms overhaul

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The Independent Online
Don Cruickshank, the telecoms regulator, yesterday called for a fundamental overhaul of the communications industry which would involve abandoning the Telecommunications and Broadcasting Acts and replacing them with a broader set of general rules.

In a speech delivered to an audience of telecoms specialists, Mr Cruickshank pointed out the rapid convergence of telecoms, media and information technology and argued they would have to be regulated very differently in future if the UK was to keep its leading position in the telecom and creative industries.

He suggested that individual broadcast and telecoms licenses should be replaced by a system of "general authorisation" where companies would be allowed to operate unhindered provided it adhered to a set of special rules.

He also argued that the system which requires ITV and Channel 5 to provide a certain amount of public service broadcasting was "rapidly becoming unenforceable" and should be dropped so that the channels could "compete on a level playing field with other commercial players".

Meanwhile, he said the licence fee should be linked to the costs of making programmes so that the BBC could continue to hold its own against the commercial broadcasters.

It is the first time that Mr Cruickshank, who steps down as director- general of Oftel at the end of the month, has publicly outlined his views on the regulation of the rapidly changing communications industry.

The speech, which is effectively Mr Cruickshank's swansong, will fuel the debate about whether Oftel, which is charged with regulating the telecom industry, should be merged with the Independent Television Commission, which controls broadcasting standards, to create a super-regulator. Although Mr Cruickshank refused to address the issue specifically, he is due to submit evidence on the subject to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee next week.

In the past, Mr Cruickshank has argued that the regulation of broadcasting "content" and the means in which that content is delivered should be separated. However, he appears to have changed his mind.

"The present regulatory structure is creaking, with overlaps between regulators and rules which don't quite map on to the new communications world," Mr Cruickshank said.

He warned that a failure to simplify the structure would scare off investors and hamper the growth of new industries. "The one option we can't take is to let things drift," he said.