Ofcom's Currie has a lot on his plate

Peter Judge: Lord Currie has helped regulate gas and electricity. But can he handle the heat at the new communications super-regulator, Ofcom?

There is only one good reason why you might want to be Lord David Currie, the Labour peer recently selected for the job of head of the proposed communications regulator, Ofcom. There are several good reasons why you would definitely not want to be him.

His position is attractive because, unlike everyone else connected with the telecoms industry, he knows what his job and salary will be in six months' time. For £133,000 per year, he will be overseeing the creation of Ofcom, the super-regulator that (perhaps early next year) will merge five bodies currently covering broadcasting, television, radio and telecoms. And given the complexity of the task he can be reasonably sure the job will last for a while.

The problem with his job will be the number of conflicting demands he has to reconcile. It will make his experience on the board of Ofgem, the gas and electricity regulator, seem like a picnic.

At least with gas and electricity, he was dealing with a relatively fixed commodity, not something whose value could be completely altered by the delivery of new technologies. Nor did he have to deal with abstract ideas like the connection of broadcasting and telecommunications.

Lord Currie starts work in August, and will be appointing directors and staff for the new body. The Communications Bill has yet to be made law, but between that and last November's "paving bill" the Ofcom agenda is clear, but the structure of the body is not. It is obviously likely that people currently working at the existing agencies -- like Oftel's David Edmunds -- will show up in the new body, but the appointments will all be advertised openly.

Here's a quick look at some of the tricky matters he will have to grapple with.

Firstly, some people in the telecoms industry will fear that, when they lose their own regulator, Oftel, their agenda will be submerged. Ofcom will be dealing with a medley of communications matters -- and it will take it some months to get its own internal organisation sorted.

Of course, organisations like BT who have been taken to task by Oftel might be glad of this, of course, but you might expect providers like Bulldog and Cable & Wireless, who have complained to Oftel to great effect, to be less happy with the change.

In fact, all telecoms companies are going to be worrying. They have learned to get along with Oftel, and BT in particular knows the regulator well enough to play the game to its advantage.

BT's broadband price cut, announced by new chairman Ben Verwaayen in February, was a classic example. In theory, Oftel might have had to forbid the price cut as unfair, on the grounds that BT was selling broadband for less than cost. Verwaayen argued that the economies of scale would quickly make the cut profitable -- in effect, he dared Oftel to oppose it.

Opposing a price cut in a service that is being held back by its cost would have been an unpopular move for a regulator so the cut went ahead. And, as it happened, it produced a mini-boom in broadband take-up which protected BT from calls that it should be broken up. BT did very well, and Oftel escaped PR damage it could do without.

But this kind of subtle playing takes a while to establish, and for the first few months at least, the operators and the regulator will be finding their feet again. And this could lead to a comeback of the kind of tantrums we used to see between BT and Oftel.

Secondly, broadcasting and telecoms may be converging, but they haven't converged yet, and Currie may get tripped up by conflicting interests in the overlap areas.

For example, the Cave report on Radio Spectrum Management, commissioned by the Department of Trade and Industry and published in March, recommended that bandwidth be traded -- including the wavelengths that broadcasters already occupy.

Charging for spectrum is popular with the Radiocommunications Agency, as it will encourage people to use the spectrum more efficiently. It could even push broadcasters to make the switch to digital more quickly. But the broadcasters themselves are dead against it, the owners of 3G Spectrum have mixed feelings, and the government is not rushing into this.

Ofcom will be doing the jobs of both the Radiocommunications Agency and the broadcasting regulators. It must be a good thing to get all sides of this argument at the same table, and have a body whose job is to consider every side of the argument. But handling the arguments is going to be some task.

Other issues include BT's desire to begin broadcasting over its fixed network, which is still an effective monopoly. Merging the regulation of broadcasting with telecoms will create a body that has a chance of getting a balanced view of this, but the argument will be fierce.

All in all, Currie definitely has plenty on his plate. We will be watching closely to see what he makes of it.

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