Broadband TV could spark tighter Web controls

Ofcom has warned that the proliferation of faster IP networks and video-over-broadband services could erode the boundary between TV and the Internet, with big implications for the online world

The drive by Internet service providers and traditional broadcasters to offer video content online could force Ofcom to begin regulating the Web more closely.

When the government formulated the Communications Act -- which brought Ofcom into existence in 2003 -- it deliberately didn't give the regulator the power to control the Internet in the same way that it governs television and radio. MPs of all parties were in broad agreement that Ofcom needed to enforce standards of taste and decency on TV, but that it would be wrong to give it similar controls over Internet content.

But Matt Peacock, Ofcom's communication director, warned last week that the inexorable rise of the Internet Protocol means this status quo is coming under growing pressure.

"The Communications Act rightly excluded Internet control from Ofcom's remit, and made a clear distinction between TV and the Internet," said Peacock, speaking at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the London Internet Exchange. "Over time, that distinction will be washed away."

As a rapidly growing number of Internet users move onto broadband connections, and those connections become faster and faster, there will soon be many million of households capable of receiving video broadcasts on demand over the Web.

This could seriously undermine the watershed, which restricts TV networks from broadcasting content suited only for adults until after 9pm at night. Broadband users can potentially download any piece of content from a server based anywhere in the world at any time of the day and night.

Just last week, BT announced it was creating an entertainment division to create and distribute a range of broadband content, including video. Also in the UK, the BBC has made some significant moves in this direction by offering some of its TV and radio content online.

Peacock's comments echoed an earlier speech given by Ofcom chairman David Currie to the Royal Television Society in October. Currie said that the UK's technological landscape, with fixed-line broadband, mobility and storage all buoyant, had massive implications.

"The rapid growth of first multi-channel, then digital, then personal video recorders and soon higher-speed broadband are simply the pre-tremors of the real volcanic eruption that technology is about to unleash," said Lord Currie.

"At the risk of being over-dramatic I would say that most traditional television broadcasters are today standing about the equivalent of one mile from Mount St Helens. When it blows, frankly, that is too close and then it will be too late to run," he added. 

Both Currie and Peacock acknowledged that the way forward is far from clear.

"The idea that the regulator should become a gigantic firewall isn't a very good one," said Peacock adding that the least ISPs could do would be to introduce "intelligent meta tagging" to help consumers to filter out inappropriate broadband television.


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