Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by SMAG (Spectrum Management Advisory Group)

  SMAG will discuss the Draft Communications Bill [Cm 5508-I] at its next meeting in July and will then formally submit its comments to the Joint Communications Bill Team at the DTI.

  However, SMAG is pleased at this initial stage of its deliberations to present its comments to the Parliamentary Joint Committee. The numbers in parantheses refer to the relevant paragraphs in the Policy document [Cm 5508-III] associated with the Draft Bill.

  1.  SMAG welcomes the stated objectives [2.2] of the Bill:

    —  to provide "for all regulatory decisions affecting the communications sector to be made within a single, over-arching strategic framework";

    —  to remove "the requirement for licencing of telecommunications systems" and associated with this "the introduction of a new regulatory regime for electronic communications networks, electronic communications services and associated facilities". SMAG feels it will be important, however, to ensure that this change does not result in an ill-disciplined approach to the use of telecommuncations equipment. The process of type-approval of telecommuncations equipment may need to be strengthened. Also, the process to be put in place for resolution of disputes between communications providers in this new environment will need careful thought. SMAG notes that this has not yet been done [6.2.1] and stresses the importance of defining as soon as possible the process;

    —  to "allow spectrum trading which will lead to better use of the available radio spectrum";

    —  to provide "a new, more coherent, structure for broadcasting regulation that is specifically geared to the digital age";

  2.  SMAG notes that the intention is for the new regulator of (OFCOM) to "have an in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the communications sector" [3.1.4] and that it will "be designed from new" [3.4.1]. This is entirely appropriate, but at challenging task. Existing regulators, of which the Radio Authority is an excellent example, have been successful in their role because they have had staff who did indeed have in-depth knowledge of that particular industry and sector. It is vital that such specialist sector expertise is replicated in OFCOM, since the various parts of the communications business operate in very different ways.

  3.  SMAG is disappointed that there is no mention of the need for strong technical expertise in OFCOM. The FCC in the USA has recently strengthened its Technical Branch, recognising that good regulatory policy cannot be formulated without a close understanding of the increasingly complex issues related to the technology and engineering of communications systems. Undoubtedly, some of the present functions of the Radiocommunications Agency can be contracted out to the private sector, but it will be essential to maintain a team of high-calibre engineering and technical staff within OFCOM.

  4.  SMAG notes that the "Secretary of State may require OFCOM to represent the UK on relevant international bodies and at relevant international meetings" [4.5.2]. It is the view of SMAG that international harmonisation is an increasingly important issue and that OFCOM should have an explicit duty in representing the UK at international meetings related to regulatory policy, spectrum planning, and technical standards formulation.

  5.  SMAG welcomes the duty on OFCOM to "encourage the optimal use of the electromagnetic spectrum" [5.1.1], but notes that this may conflict with other objectives such as universal access provisions. It is not clear how such conflicts may be resolved.

  6.  SMAG notes and agrees with the comment [6.4.1] that "it is necessary to strike a balance between rolling out the physical infrastructure on which all these communications depend, and environmental concerns". SMAG has debated such matters and identified as a major difficulty the situation that health and environmental issues are split between many different parts of national and local government. It is critical, in the view of SMAG, to have a single focus for the health and environmental issues related to the communications industries. The Bill makes no comment on whether OFCOM will assume such a duty.

  7.  SMAG has commented separately on the Independent Review of Spectrum Management, led by Professor Cave. On the specific aspect of the use of satellites, SMAG agrees that there should be a mechanism for bringing all satellite communications into a common spectrum planning and pricing process such as the proposed Recognised Spectrum Access scheme. In the view of SMAG, this is likely to become a longer-term objective because of the need to gain consensus internationally on such proposals.

  8.  SMAG is disappointed that there is no mention of its own role and that of the Cabinet Office UK Spectrum Strategy Committee. It is suggested that the Bill "give Ministers powers . . . to intervene if they considered that OFCOM were not managing the spectrum in the wider interest" [7.4.4] and that "Ministers should retain powers to make essential political judgements over the distribution of spectrum and to specify other public policy objectives and criteria that OFCOM should take into account in managing spectrum" [7.4.5]. SMAG feels strongly that there is a need for clarity in the respective roles of Ministers, OFCOM, and various Advisory Committees. There are a number of potentially conflicting issues that emerge in the Bill, such as the indication that Ministers wish to retain powers of intervention in the allocation of spectrum, but wish to introduce spectrum trading which will restrict those powers. There needs to be clarity on the further important issues of how the activities of OFCOM will be overseen. What role, for example, do other Ministerial Advisory Committees and the non-executive directors on the proposed OFCOM Board have in this respect?

  9.  SMAG agrees with the emphasis placed on the importance of "free to view" television services [8.2]. This appears to be the only viable model for digital terrestrial television services in the near to medium term.

  10.  SMAG notes the comments on TV set licensing [8.6.1] and questions if now is not the opportunity to remove the anomaly of licensing the use of receiving equipment, bearing in mind the other provisions of the Bill in moving away from licensing systems or apparatus. The "TV Licence Fee", which is in fact a funding fee for the BBC, should be re-named a "Public Service Broadcasting Fee".

June 2002

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