Ofcom is a regulator. It should not act like it owns the airwaves

BBC NEWS | Technology | Spectrum plan threatens radio mic

If you go to any kind of large public event, music-theatre production, even a well done school play or a big church service, chances are that it depends at least in part on radio microphones. For the non-technically minded, radio mics, as a general rule, just work, and everything is fine. For the technical, it’s a bit more complex. Every microphone has to be on its own frequency. There are four frequencies which can be used free of charge by anyone. Rather more frequencies are available for anyone paying an annual license fee, and, for major events, coordinated frequencies are available which guarantee that no-one else is using your frequency at the same time in the same place.

All this is set to change, though, becaus Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, is planning to sell off these frequencies to the highest bidder, as part of the digital switchover. Digital TV is, by and large, a good idea. It means more channels available (this may or may not be a good idea) for less bandwidth. But these frequencies are not used by digital TV. The almost inevitable result is that the highest bidder with the deepest pocket will snaffle the frequencies, and the entertainment industry, churches, schools, law courts, TV news crews and sporting events — to name but a few — will be left with large piles of hugely expensive equipment and no solution whatsoever.

How expensive? A professional radio microphone costs from £300 upwards. There are tens of thousands in use across the UK — an investment of millions, typically by organisations which are not cash rich. Ofcom has indicated that it believes digital microphones may be the solution, but this technology is not well established, has serious problems, and is not commercially available.

The UK entertainment industry — leaving aside all the other industries and services that rely on radio microphones — contributes £15 billion annually to the economy.

However, this contribution is none of Ofcom’s business — and it doesn’t have to factor it into its calcuations. Ofcom’s intention is to ‘make the best use of the radio spectrum’. But what determines the ‘best use’? If Ofcom wants to follow an exclusively market-driven approach, using an auction as a way of determining who intends to make the best use of the frequencies then it should first establish that it actually has the right to go to the market.

Many of us were rightly furious when the previous Conservative government sold off the utilities and the railways at bargain prices. The debacle of the railways should have demonstrated clearly that the market is not always a good mechanism. But at least the government did actually own the trains, the tracks, the land and the market share. Equally, the national grid and the water pipes were things which previous generations of national, regional and local government had invested in. But neither Ofcom nor the present government invented radio, and none of their predecessors created the frequencies which Ofcom now wants to sell off.

Ofcom has suggested that radio spectrums are a natural resource as precious as water. The image is far-fetched. But even if it were appropriate, it would not give Ofcom the right to arbitrarily sell the rights, any more than Severn-Trent would have acquired the rights to any rain that fell on your house, or nPower would have a monopoly on the power from the dynamo on your bicycle.

Ofcom is in a peculiarly powerful and monopolistic position. It is both regulator and auctioneer. This is almost unique in British public life. The Advertising Standards Authority regulates advertising, but it does not get to sell the right to advertise. The Healthcare Commission regulates the NHS, but it is not able to profit by selling health franchises to the highest bidder. Quest, the semi-invisible culture and sport watchdog, does not get to sell ‘artistic licence’.

Ofcom’s statutory duties are set out in the Communications Act 2003. On its website, it describes its accountabilities in these terms:
“Ofcom covers both content and infrastructure in the communications sector. At present, these are responsibilities of separate Government departments and thus of separate Commons Select Committees who oversee those departments. There is no structured House of Lords system of oversight of Ofcom. While Ofcom is independent of Government, the Secretaries of State will answer Questions in Parliament about Ofcom: another process of indirect accountability by Ofcom (see Engagement with Ministers and advisers for copies of correspondence between Ofcom and these sponsoring departments on matters relating to Ofcom’s duties).”

In other words, by being accountable to everyone, Ofcom is accountable to no-one but itself.

Which begs the ancient question: Quis custodiet custodiens? Who regulates the regulators?

It is perhaps bizarre (but on reflection unsurprising) that a government so obsessed with media as the current one has created a body with so much arbitrary power and so little accountability. The last five years of New Labour have been a struggle to master the news agenda and, more than anything else, to put the BBC in its place. The decision to allow Ofcom to act as though it owned the airwaves may yet prove to be a solution far worse than the supposed problem, and more catastrophic than the Conservatives fire sale of water, power and railways.

For more information on the industry campaign to lobby Ofcom, visitBEIRG, the British Entertainment Industry Radio Group. The author is not associated with this group.

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