Watchdogs do battle for digital TV

The industry has welcomed Ofcom in principle. But Oftel and the ITC are resisting merger, writes Cathy Newman

The Government is pressing ahead with plans to create a super- regulator for the communications industry. The move will intensify the battle between Don Cruickshank, director-general of Oftel, the telecoms regulator, and the Independent Television Commission (ITC), the television watchdog lead by Sir Robin Biggam.

The Department of Trade and Industry is to issue a consultation document in the autumn, asking for comments on its proposals to form a joint broadcast and telecoms regulator, provisionally entitled Ofcom.

A DTI spokesman said the department was liaising with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). He said: "The Government is committed to having a look at this issue due to the convergence of the telecoms and broadcasting industries. A document will be going out to the industry and interested parties for consultation in the autumn."

The idea of merging Oftel and the ITC to form Ofcom was first mooted two years ago. Although the details have not been fleshed out, there is a growing conviction in the industry that present regulatory arrangements are ill-equipped for the convergence of telecoms companies and broadcasters.

For example, the ban which prevents BT from broadcasting is likely to be lifted within months. BT is also indirectly involved with broadcasting through its stake in British Interactive Broadcasting, the interactive television service.

If the ITC and Oftel do merge, the burning question is which will come out on top? Their most recent - and most public - spat occurred after the ITC awarded three digital terrestrial television licences to British Digital Broadcasting. BSkyB was forced to pull out of the consortium - now jointly owned by Carlton Communications and Granada Group - after competition worries. But the satellite broadcaster secured a long-term programme supply deal with BDB. Mr Cruickshank issued a strongly worded statement criticising the ITC's decision, saying BSkyB's programming deal still "raised substantial competition concerns".

Mr Cruickshank's intervention illustrated the problem caused by the blurring of the two watchdogs' roles. Before digital television reared its head Oftel and the ITC had clearly separate functions. The ITC was charged with ensuring fair and effective competition in the television industry, while making certain broadcasters provided a wide range of services. Oftel was to look after "traffic over networks" and control "access to these networks".

At the moment, regulation of digital broadcasting is awkwardly split between the two bodies. The ITC had, for example, hoped to regulate conditional access, the encryption technology used to decode digital television signals. But Oftel was given responsibility for conditional access in the 1996 Broadcasting Act. The recent decision that interactive services should also come under Oftel's remit has increased the watchdog's power in this field.

Although the ITC has taken the initiative with its extended consultation on the "bundling" of cable and satellite channels, it has been forced to share with Oftel control over electronic programme guides (EPGs), which will enable consumers to navigate digital television channels.

Senior industry figures are virtually unanimous in their belief that, if a super-regulator is created, Oftel is in a better position to take the leading role. One senior television executive delivered an acerbic judgement of the ITC, saying: "They have consistently proved themselves to be inconsistent. The DCMS does not hold the ITC in particularly high regard."

City analysts agreed. Derek Terrington, media analyst at Teather & Greenwood, said: "Oftel has the greater status and the technological spin on everything. The ITC, which seems to become more archaic day by day, has surely got a shrinking remit."

The warring watchdogs are unlikely to thank the Government if it decides to throw them into bed together. The ITC yesterday reiterated its belief that a single content regulator could be created for the broadcasting industry, but resisted a merger with Oftel. "We don't believe telecoms and broadcasting regulation fit together. Broadcasting regulation is too important to be put in with something as large as telecoms," a spokeswoman said.

Oftel was just as keen to resist getting any closer to the ITC. "There is a need for regulatory streamlining, but not necessarily through a merger of Oftel and the ITC," a spokesman for the telecoms regulator said.

Despite the amount of interest, and antagonism, Ofcom is already generating, the communications super-regulator is unlikely to get the all-clear for some while yet. It is thought detailed plans for Ofcom may be put on hold until after the results of a review of utility regulation, launched last month by Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, are known. The blueprint for the communications regulator may also have to wait until after Labour's new competition Bill is passed. The Bill, drafted by Mrs Beckett earlier this month, may make some of the duties of Oftel and the ITC redundant.

The Government needs to answer a whole host of questions before Ofcom becomes official. There is still doubt whether Ofcom would cover radio. Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, has indicated that the radio industry, currently regulated by the Radio Authority, would be better served by a separate regulator.

Neither the DTI nor the DCMS will be short of advice on which media should come under Ofcom's jurisdiction. Interested parties have already written many column inches on the subject. Benet Middleton, principal policy researcher at the Consumers' Association, published a paper in June saying a single communications regulator should merge "many of the functions" of the ITC and Oftel, but added that the new body should also cover the BBC and the Post Office. Mr Middleton is to expand on his initial theories next month. The ITC is also preparing a response to Mr Middleton's points.

Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Travel
travelWhy Japan's love hotels are thriving through an economic downturn
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Head of Audit

To £75,000 + Pension + Benefits + Bonus: Saxton Leigh: My client is looking f...

Audit Manager Central Functions

To £85,000 + banking benefits: Saxton Leigh: You will be expected to carry out...

Credit Risk Audit Manager

Up to £90,000 + benefits: Saxton Leigh: Credit Risk Audit Manager required to ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week