Chair’s message – Ofcom's Annual Report and Accounts 2019/20

Lord Burns

A message from our Chair, Lord (Terry) Burns.

As society comes to terms with the impact of Covid-19, the nationwide lockdown and social distancing have emphasised the essential role of broadband and mobile networks in supporting our economy and keeping people connected, no matter how far apart.

Faced with these challenges, those networks have performed well – partly reflecting the steps that Ofcom, Government and industry took over the past year in getting better broadband and mobile connections to people around the UK..

More than 95% of UK properties can now get superfast broadband, with around six in ten of those taking it up. The latest full-fibre technology reaches 12% of premises and is growing fast. And the number of homes and offices that cannot get a decent broadband connection by any means has fallen to around 190,000.

In March, we introduced the Government’s universal broadband service, giving every home and business the right to request a decent connection.

In mobile, we prepared to auction new airwaves to support growing demand for data on smartphones, and to pave the way for innovative 5G services.

Another focus for us this year has been fairness for phone, broadband and pay-TV customers – particularly those more vulnerable due to age or financial circumstances. These people have always been a priority for Ofcom; and as the full impact of Covid-19 is felt by millions of vulnerable people, their needs must come first.

This year we obtained agreement from the UK’s largest broadband providers to cut prices for longstanding customers – many of whom are older – and introduce extra protections for the vulnerable.

Ofcom wants everyone to get a fair deal. We introduced rules in February requiring all customers to be told when their contract is coming to an end, and be shown the best prices available to them. As in broadband, we reviewed mobile prices and secured commitments from all the major providers – except Three – to reduce bills for long-standing customers. We also made it much easier to switch mobile provider with just a simple text message.

As a result, millions of customers are likely to save money in the coming years. But people also need protection from mistakes that might cost them money. This year we imposed fines including £1.4m on the mobile company Giffgaff, for overcharging customers; and £245,000 on BT, after it overcharged some EE customers for directory enquiries.

Protecting people from harm is at the heart of Ofcom’s work – not just in telecoms, but equally in broadcasting. This year we tackled problems such as hate speech and unfair treatment of individuals by conducting more investigations into TV and radio programmes, recording 82 breaches of our rules. We imposed a range of penalties, including a £200,000 fine on the TV news channel RT for failing to preserve due impartiality; and fines of £100,000 and £200,000 on the former licence holders of Peace TV and Peace TV Urdu, for broadcasting hate speech  and highly offensive content.

Of course, most broadcasters work hard to maintain the high standards that make our creative industries the envy of the world. But this year the industry faced unprecedented challenges, as Covid-19 hit advertising revenues and halted the production of many shows. One of our priorities remains to support UK broadcasting, whose value was proven again by strong viewing and listening figures during the pandemic.

As the UK’s largest public broadcaster, the BBC plays a central role. This year our review of the corporation’s news – and our annual report on its performance – showed the breadth and quality  of the BBC’s content still connects with millions of people. But it must engage more younger people and strive to represent the whole of UK society in its programmes.

Our BBC findings were based on research among viewers and listeners. Hearing from people about their changing views and needs remains the foundation of our regulation in all sectors.

For example, we have also completed a major survey of postal users’ needs and priorities – as letter volumes decline but parcel numbers continue to rise. With increasing parcel deliveries, postal workers were central to keeping our economy moving this year, as the lockdown shifted most retail activity online; and our consumer research will help shape our future regulation of Royal Mail at a time of great change for the industry.

Leading our work is Dame Melanie Dawes, whom I was delighted to welcome as our new Chief Executive in March. Melanie brings a wealth of experience, most recently as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, where she was also Diversity and Inclusion Champion for the Civil Service.

Melanie will oversee work in important areas – not only responding to Covid-19, but also preparing for a potential new remit tackling online harms, and helping our sector adapt to the UK leaving the European Union.

In a world of change, uncertainty and new opportunities, Ofcom’s fundamental goals are unchanged: promoting better services for homes and businesses, protecting people from harm, and making communications work for everyone.