Government to overhaul Communications Act

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt, who has taken over responsibility for telecoms regulation, has begun consultation on a new law covering broadband, mobile and online TV services
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced a radical government rethink of the 2003 Communications Act, which established Ofcom and through it current regulation of broadband, mobile telephony and television.

The government has started a review of media and communications with a view to creating a new act, and is calling on businesses for their input, Hunt told the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday.

Jeremy Hunt DCMS announcement

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has announced a radical rethink of the 2003 Communications Act. Photo credit: Conservative Party

The news came on the same day that the government announced it has moved responsibility for some key areas of technology policy from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

"It is now seven years since the last Act — a long time in today's fast-paced environment. Now is the moment to make sure we have the most modern, innovation- and investment-friendly legal structure in place," Hunt said. "I am prepared to radically rethink the way we do things."

Hunt said the government will publish a green paper at the end of the year that will set out the full scope of the new proposed Communications Bill. The new act is intended to be put in place in 2015 and to last for at least a decade, he added.

In addition to setting up Ofcom, the 2003 Communications Act also contains a measure that led to a trainee accountant being fined for posting a joke bomb threat on Twitter. It also contains a provision that could be interpreted as holding businesses such as coffee shops that provide free Wi-Fi to customers as responsible for unlawful downloads made over their networks.

Thorough review

In his address to the Oxford Media Convention, Hunt did not touch specifically on areas such as the regulation of internet and mobile services, which fall under the remit of Ofcom. However, he said the review of the 2003 Communications Act would be "thorough".

"This is not about tweaking the current system, but redesigning it — from scratch if necessary — to make it fit for purpose," he said.

Hunt was more specific in addressing television regulation, promising scrutiny of the rules for online content such as IPTV services. He ruled out regulation of websites such as Google's YouTube video-sharing site, saying the government's focus is on IPTV services such as those set to be launched by Sky and Virgin Media this year, as well as YouView, the digital TV platform backed by the BBC, BT and others.

"This year will see the launch of YouView along with the rollout of new and upgraded video and web-on-demand services from Sky and Virgin Media — the first mainstream IPTV services that could eventually bring the chaos of the internet into our living room," he noted.

British ISPs have long been concerned that Ofcom could be given more regulatory powers over internet television content, which currently is not subject to any specific regulatory framework.

Under the reassignment of responsibilities from BIS to DCMS, Hunt's department will now oversee fixed and mobile telecoms policies, spectrum allocation, broadband policy and delivery, the Broadband Delivery UK programme and implementation of the Digital Economy Act. Ed Vaizey, formerly a joint minister between DCMS and BIS, will now report only to Hunt, although he will continue to work closely with BIS ministers, the government said.

Labour MP and former Digital Britain minister Stephen Timms criticised the move, suggesting in a posting on Twitter that DCMS's remit is too eclectic. "Dismayed the cabinet minister for sport and museums has today been given responsibility for telecommunications and internet policy," Timms said in his post.

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