Posts Tagged ‘OFCOM’

OFCOM mulls legislation to save DAB

Friday, November 7th, 2008

Parliament may need to step in with new legislation, to save the digital radio fail whale OFCOM admitted today.

OFCOM’s Peter Davies made the comments in front of a critical audience at the Radio Academy’s Radio At The Edge conference today. Davies was put on the spot by moderator James Ashton. After years of trying to put a brave face on DAB, the OFCOM man all but admitted the British radio industry now needed drastic action.

“Yes, it will require legislation,” he said, in order to restructure the industry, and lower costs, so that commercial operators could survive.

Davies acknowledged he’d have no choice if the commercial operators all decided to revolt en masse.

OFCOM effectively forces national operators onto DAB by making it a mandatory condition of a new 12 year analog license. But DAB is nothing but a millstone – costing about 10 times as much as analog to broadcast, and with very few listeners. If all the commercial operators handed in their DAB licenses back to OFCOM at once, what would the regulator do? Davies said that may be the cue for action. But he did warn that legislation took a year to pass through Parliament, so even if the broadcasters revolted tomorrow, it would be 2010 before

Asked if Britain hadn’t leapt into digital radio too early – the rest of the world is introducing more advanced and efficient standards – Davies said it didn’t really matter, as radios using a common profile would be technology-neutral. Which is too bad for those of us with plain old DAB.

So how low is DAB listenership?

One radio exec, Daniel Nathan of Brighton-based Juice, even went as far as suggesting that listenership was so low on the new digital stations, it might as well not go out over broadcast radio at all. Nathan pointed out that most get around 10,000 to 15,000 per half hour, and big hitters like BBC Radio 6 barely topped 50,000, with peaks of 61,000 on Saturday mornings.

“We might as well move them to IP,” he pointed out.

“Five years ago DAB looked like the future – but the world has moved on,” he said.

That was one one of the nicer things said about digital radio yesterday at yesterday’s Academy event.

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Top-slicing the Beeb: Clueless execs get busy

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Some quangos, like jellyfish, seem to be able to reproduce asexually. It’s what they live to do. What this means is that without any contact, parthenogenesis occurs and they simply spawn off a little version of themselves, which may grow as large as its parent. Britain’s uber-regulator Ofcom, I learned this week, definitely falls into this class. I just hadn’t realised how badly it longs to plop out lots of baby Ofcoms.

Ofcom recently proposed that the BBC should share the licence fee with commercial rivals. But with one exception, none of the commercial rivals actually want this to happen – which leaves Ofcom keenest of all on the idea.

At the Westminster Media Forum debate on Wednesday, executives from the top of British TV management discussed the regulator’s review into Public Service Broadcasting, in which “top-slicing” the licence fee is The Big Idea.

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Earth to Ofcom: They're our airwaves. Give us them back

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

Sometimes Ofcom, Britain’s media and telecomms uber-regulator, likes to agonise in public whether Britain needs a media and telecomms uber-regulator.

It must feel like a stag night in SE1, as the executives fly in expensive blue-sky wonks and consultants, and Ofcom gets quite giddy with itself at the prospect of a world without Ofcom. Then sobriety returns, of course, and it wakes up and finds itself knickerless and handcuffed to a lampost.

So Ofcom gets back to what it loves doing best: Making Very Big Decisions about What’s Good for Us.

Yesterday Ofcom published its second Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) review in five years, and while this one extends itself to encompass new media – such as the very intarweb you’re reading now – it doesn’t do much more than hem and haw, and fret about the status quo. This PSB review doesn’t dare answer the questions it raises, while leaving the biggest issues untouched.

So here’s a modest proposal.
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Nathan Barleys mourn Great Lost Quango

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Soho’s Nathan Barleys were in mourning yesterday after Ofcom chief Ed Richards abandoned his shape-shifting flagship, the “Public Service Publisher” quango.

Richards said in a speech to the Royal Television Society on Tuesday night that the “the PSP as a concept has served its purpose and we can move on to the relevant questions for today”.

Translated from PR-speak, that means the game is up for the much-derided idea. (It’s been called “Welfare For Wankers”.) So what is the PSP and why did it create such a passionate response from Reg readers?

When the idea was first floated in 2004, it was as a TV commissioning agency for worthy “public service” programming, with a budget of about £300m a year. It was needed, Ofcom explained, “to ensure that the necessary level of competition for quality in public service broadcasting continues through the transition to digital”.

The BBC helped shoot that down, but Richards couldn’t let the idea drop. The PSP was revived, only this time encumbered with Web 2.0 buzzwords – and in one of the most spectacularly naff policy proposals ever made, emerged as a quango for New Media types, with an annual budget of £100m mooted.

“It’s a new media answer to a new media question,” is how Ofcom described it, tautologically.

The argument was that the “market” for worthy new media projects had failed, and that British internet users were too stupid to find it for themselves on Google.

A year ago, we invited readers to tell Ofcom what it thought as part of its consultation process – with hilarious results:

“As a self-actualising media node, I welcome this redistribution of government funds from provincial luddites to new media ‘creative’ Sohoites…

“Cool Britannia lives! The creative industries initiative was good but didn’t radically empower young creatives and their 360-degree thinking. Unleash the collective wisdom of new media and see us swarm!”

“Let’s use those redundant factories to turn out polyphonic ringtones.”

Ofcom coolly ignored the hostile responses, claiming the public supported the concept. Senior BBC web luvvie Tom Loosemore was hired to strategise on what he described as a “visionary and transformative” project.

But after MPs savaged the idea last autumn, Richards had little option but to find a graceful exit.

“Geoff Metzger, managing director of the History Channel, perhaps summed it up best when he said that the public service publisher was a ‘cure with no known disease’,” the Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport concluded.

Yet even then, so many of New Labour’s new media types found the idea of a cash trough so irresistable, that the corpse of the PSP was still being given electric shocks.

“To really move on, the creative industries need to get past special pleading and on to a sound intellectual basis regarding the encouragement of, and support, for risk and how to measure results,” pleaded Lord Lilley of Webquango, one of the authors of the P2P 2.0 proposal, in The Guardian.

Having staked so much of his personal capital on the project, Richards now calls it a “rock thrown into a pool”.

DAB: A very British failure

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Emergency talks to save digital radio are taking place in Manchester today, the FT reports. Unloved, unviable, and often unlistenable, DAB is a technology the public clearly doesn’t want; so it comes as no surprise to learn that coercion will be used to persuading the public to get on board. With DAB, we’re expected to pay for the stick that beats us up.

DAB has been a very British failure. While the specification is almost 20 years old, and (just about) adequate, bureaucracy and regulatory greed left British listeners with an experience far short of the “CD quality” sound they were promised.

Digital radio has been expensively promoted by both the BBC and Ofcom – both of whom have deeply vested interests in the digital switchover. And the vested interests range far and wide, too – media companies have digital stations of their own, and prefer cross-promoting their investments in their publications to reporting the subject frankly. Meanwhile, analogue radio remains Briton’s best-loved and most popular medium, a survey confirmed this week, with 100m analogue sets in use – compared to 6.5m DAB receivers.

Finally, GCap blew the whistle on the charade two weeks ago, when it announced that it was canning two of its DAB stations.

“We do not believe that – with its current cost structure and infrastructure – [DAB] is an economically viable platform,” the commercial broadcaster said.

The FT reports that secret crisis talks are taking place in Manchester today to try and make digital radio more attractive to commercial broadcasters. Coercion of one form or another seems high on the agenda, however.

One idea is to make the analogue receivers obsolete overnight, by withdrawing BBC broadcasts from analogue radio. Want the Beeb? Go out and buy a new set.

Running down analogue has also spawned dozens of thriving community FM stations, which provide a stark contrast to government-backed “community empowerment” programs based on web technologies such as social networking. These stations also embarrass the BBC, whose own lacklustre local radio stations too often appear to serve as a home for washed-up Alan Partridges. When given the choice, people prefer listening to real people, rather than the patronising “local” voice of the BBC.

Another idea cited is to use our own money for more digital propaganda. The FT reports that the BBC has a £250m spare license payers’ cash, in the kitty handed to it for digital radio:

“Another radical idea would be to use public money to support a huge switchover advertising campaign – and subsidies for elderly and low-income families to buy new radios – in the same way that as has happened in aiding the switch-over to digital television.”

MPs reject Ofcom's Nathan Barley quango

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

In a victory for Register readers, MPs have rejected Ofcom’s proposal for a publicly-funded new media quango.

The Commons’ select committee for Culture, Media and Sport rejects the idea that the creation of a “Public Service Publisher” gatekeeper would help the market.

The report is here, while the Ofcomwatch blog broke the news here. The PSP would have cost taxpayers £300m a year, with the cash going to production houses to create interactive Web 2.0-style concepts.

Readers savaged the idea during Ofcom’s consultation process. One submission to OFCOM urged:

“As a self-actualising media node, I welcome this redistribution of government funds from provincial luddites to new media ‘creative’ Sohoites… Ed Richards’s initiative ‘gets’ new media on so many levels. Let’s flashmob this bitch up to escape velocity.”

(This, and other responses are on the Ofcom site.)

MPs go beyond saying that there’s no sign of market failure, which is a precondition for the regulator to intervene. The committee concludes that the new quango would distort the market. The committee writes:

“Geoff Metzger, managing director of the History Channel, perhaps summed it up best when he said that the public service publisher was a ‘cure with no known disease’.”

The “Public Service Publisher” is a quintessentially New Labour backscratching exercise, backed by friends of Ofcom chief Ed Richards, who calls it his “personal crusade”.

The quango would be “a new media answer to a new media question”, an Ofcom spokesman told us back in March.

Unfortunately, the hastily-scribbled concepts looked less like the future of media, and more like Look Around You updated with Web 2.0 buzzwords.

The regulator gave the job of studying the idea to executives at two media companies Andrew Chitty of Illumina Digital, and Anthony Lilley of Magic Lantern Productions, a tiny TV production house. The pair recommended it start life with a budget of £100m a year, although this may need to rise.

So Ofcom’s quango looks dead – but new media luvvies are getting the taste for hand-outs. Lilley continues to campaign for new media subsidies (aka “give me the money”) in his self-aggrandising Grauniad column, for example here. Only he calls them “investments”.

Don’t expect him to stop.

Public jeers at Ofcom's Nathan Barley quango

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Ofcom has published the public consultation responses to its PSP concept. And they don’t make comfortable reading for the regulator.

The PSP, or Public Service Publisher, is a new quango that would cost taxpayers between £100m than £150m a year – handing out money to new media types for interactive websites, and other “user generated content” gimmicks. Ofcom loves the idea – and gave the task of investigating it two new media production houses who would stand to gain handsomely from the new gravy train.

Unsurprisingly, they thought a Nathan Barley Quango, or NBQ, was a splendid idea.

The public responses should be sobering, however. Most are skeptical of the need for the new quango, while many more are completely indifferent. And some are very scathing. Step forward, W Jackson:

As a self-actualizing media node, I welcome this redistribution of government funds from provincial luddites to new media ‘creative’ Sohoites.

Cool Britannia lives! The creative industries initiative was good but didn’t radically empower young creatives and their 360-degree thinking. Unleash the collective wisdom of new media and see us swarm!

If Tony had done this when he first got in (and I know how hard you tried, Ed) then thousands of people could already be employed – let’s use those redundant factories to turn out polyphonic ringtones.

Critics – like Orlowski at The Register – will complain that this is pork-barrel politics for tech. utopians. That this has no relevance to’ ‘ordinary’ people and their lives.

Well, I’ve had enough of that patronising rubbish. I’ve launched a post-ironic web brand – nar.ciss.us – that was created using the competitively-priced labour of redundant industrial workers. It shows that anyone can ‘get’ asynchronous java – even people from the North.

If anyone wants to brainstorm this – then twitter/IM/SMS/Skype/email me. I’m up for an ‘emergent conference’.

Ed Richards’s initiative ‘gets’ new media on so many levels. Let’s flashmob this bitch up to escape velocity.

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Web 2.0 firms lobby for £100m gravy train

Friday, March 23rd, 2007

If the Web 2.0 hype is running out of steam, a healthy injection of public funds should kick it back into life. New media companies in the UK are lobbying for the establishment of an institution which could spend what critics call a £100m “jackpot” of public money each year.

The new agency, which Ofcom calls a “Public Service Publisher” or PSP, would play a “gatekeeper” role in commissioning new media concepts. These range from interactive websites to participatory games involving different kinds of digital media, such as text messaging.

And without Parliament so much as examining the idea, it already looks like a shoo-in.

The idea has the powerful backing of UK Telecoms regulator Ofcom, and the personal imprimatur of its CEO Ed Richards, who describes it as the centerpiece of his “personal crusade”.

“It’s a new media answer to a new media question”, Ofcom spokesman Simon Bates told us.
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Google snubs UK's first Net Neutrality debate

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

The first significant Net Neutrality debate to take place in the UK was held today at Westminster. Chaired by former trade minister Alun Michael and the Conservative shadow trade minister Charles Hendry, the event attracted the chief Telecoms regulator and ministry policy chief, a clutch of industry representatives, and a sprinkling of members of both houses.

What emerged from the sessions is that ‘Neutrality’ is one of those incomprehensible American phenomenons, from which we’ve mercifully escaped. Your reporter was one of those invited to give a briefing – having reported on the issue from both sides of the pond – and said as much. But in the expectation that this would be the heretic view, rather than the near unanimous consensus opinion.

Summing up, Michael described the clamour for pre-emptive technical legislation as “extreme… unattractive and impractical”.

It was, he said, “an answer to problems we don’t have, using a philosophy we don’t share”.

That wasn’t the only surprise.

Google strop

Interestingly, the event was snubbed by Google, which in the USA has done so much to stoke the “Neutrality” crusade. Google has thrown lobbying money and muscle at Congress, but at Westminster, declined an invitation to speak. It sent a representative who told a fellow attendee that the panel was “biased”.

Stranger still, and this should cause conspiracy theorists some confusion – the Forum was sponsored by AT&T. That’s the AT&T that Neutralists insist doesn’t want to talk about its nefarious plans to sabotage the internet. Well, here it was. Maybe AT&T never had any intention of doing what the Neutralists claimed it wanted to do – and it was all a huge misdirection. But Occam’s Razor is never sufficient for conspiracy theorists, who simply create a new, and more elaborate narrative.

Overall, the debate was on another plane of technical and economic literacy to the hysteria served before Congress.

That doesn’t mean the UK regulator is oblivious to sensitivities. OFCOM regards the markets as essentially different. There’s more access competition here, and the UK doesn’t have such as ancient cruft as the US distinction between an information provider and a telephony provider. Greater competition means a regulator can do what a regular should do, believes OFCOM, and let the market sort it out.

OFCOM’s Douglas Scott reiterated that policy today. He said, however, he believed Neutrality wasn’t a US-only debate. Neutrality issues were being pushed up the agenda by the emergence of time-critical applications (such as video), and the ability of equipment vendors to deliver a smarter network. He then demolished most of the reasons why OFCOM needed to get involved.

In the USA, “all bits is equal” is a mainstream view, in Europe, it isn’t. The European framework permits ISP to prioritize packets by application, which the UK regulator regards as fine. A grey area, he suggested, was when an ISP offered MySpace a preferential Quality of Service deal, for a fee. Should the regulator constrain the fee?

Hand-off hands off

concerns about T-Mobile’s contract blocking VoIP calls last year. OFCOM was aware that rival network operators were striking deals with VoIP operators (3 UK now offers a packaging including Skype for £5 a month) and declined to intervene. T-Mobile has now responded with a VoIP tariff.

(It’s largely irrelevant, but still worth noting, that T-Mobile has yet to block a VoIP call made by your reporter, which suggests that while it wants to discourage VoIP calls it can’t afford to prevent them).

In that example, said Scott, OFCOM would probably have stepped in if all the operators were blocking VoIP.

Scott concluded by saying neutrality wasn’t an issue, so long as customers could migrate to an alternative provider quickly and easily.

Speaker after speaker described the difficulty of painting the phantom called Neutrality. Most characterized it as a US-centric debate. Most were wary of prescriptive regulation, which had to be technical by nature, when no harm had been caused and the problem couldn’t be described.

The Head of UK Telecoms Policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, Claire Hobson, said Neutrality was in danger of being an issue that’s “flogged to death”. She described the position as “relaxed but not comatose”, and reiterated Douglas Scott’s view that so long as people knew what deal they were getting, and could switch easily, “Neutrality” wasn’t an issue.

And Americans characterize Europeans as regulation-happy?