Former BBC boss could head Ofcom

Speculation about Ofcom boss reopens debate about super-regulator's role

Super-regulator Ofcom could be headed up by the former director-general of the BBC Lord Birt, according to reports in the Financial Times on Monday.

Ofcom is due to take over from Oftel, the Radio Authority, the Independent Television Commission and other regulatory bodies in late 2002 or early 2003. The government decided to merge the roles of these diverse bodies for two reasons: the impact that Internet and interactive TV are having on the regulatory landscape, and the increasing convergence between telecoms, content and television. It will lead to the creation of a huge regulatory body which the government has admitted will face conflicts and need to make trade-offs along the way.

Analysts have pointed out such an organisation will need an extremely powerful personality at the helm and one that can fully understand the needs of both the telecoms industry and the broadcast world. Suggestions that Birt could take a lead role will fuel criticism that Ofcom is going to focus more on television and content than infrastructure and telecoms. At an industry meeting to discuss the government proposals for Ofcom in January, the secretary general of ISPA Nicholas Lansman pointed out that there were 592 references to broadcasting compared to just 136 to Internet and 78 to telecoms in the government communications white paper which laid out the functions and role of Ofcom.

The idea of having Birt in charge seems to conflict with government assurances that unlike Oftel, Ofcom would have a board of directors rather than an individual head. Oftel remains non-committal over whether its current director general David Edmonds is up for a top job in Ofcom. "He doesn't want to discuss his career plans. It is up to the government to decide," said an Oftel spokeswoman.

Suggestions that the government white paper is very gentle on the BBC has led to speculation it is going to ask the company to roll out universal Internet access via television as part of its commitment to get the UK online by 2005. The idea that the government should extend this remit to broadband Internet access was rejected in the white paper.

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