Chief Executive's report – Ofcom's Annual Report and Accounts 2019/20

Melanie Dawes

A report from our Chief Executive, Dame Melanie Dawes.

I was honoured to become Ofcom Chief Executive in March. Only a fortnight after taking up my role, Ofcom found itself – like so many organisations – switching overnight to home-working and rethinking our role as the country managed the Covid-19 crisis.

During this time, keeping communication going across the UK has never been more important. The sectors Ofcom regulates have been vital in supporting families, businesses and individuals during the pandemic.

Telecoms providers ensured resilience across landline, broadband and mobile services, and took specific steps to support their customers. Broadcasters adapted schedules to maintain high-quality programmes and provide accurate and high-quality news. Post and parcel companies ensured continued delivery throughout the lockdown.

Communications key workers were among those who kept the UK going during this period – from the telecoms engineers and postal workers who helped us stay connected, including a small team of Ofcom’s own engineers, to the public service broadcasters who provided trusted information to viewers and listeners.

Even before Covid-19, we were witnessing continued and rapid evolution in communications, driven by social, economic and technological change.

This year our research showed rapid shifts in the nation’s viewing habits, with half of UK homes now subscribing to TV streaming services. Young people now watch half as much traditional TV as they did a decade ago, spending over an hour each day on YouTube.

At the same time, four in five UK internet users are worried about harmful experiences online. In early 2021 we will begin exercising new duties to regulate illegal and damaging content on video-sharing services based in the UK. To reflect this new role – and the wider changes in how people communicate – Ofcom launched the Making Sense of Media programme, which expands and intensifies our media literacy activities through a range of research and events.

In February, the UK Government said that it was minded to appoint Ofcom as the regulator for a wider regulatory framework to protect against online harms. Should we be appointed as the regulator, we stand ready to develop effective and proportionate rules that reflect the aims set out in any new legislation.

Changing media habits and technology continue to transform broadcasting. Public service broadcasters have shown their value during the Covid-19 crisis, with record viewing figures. But they face tough competition from global tech giants and well-funded streaming services – most recently Disney+, which launched in the UK in March.

To reflect these shifts, we have been consulting widely – and holding events across the UK – to hear from audiences, academics and parliamentarians on how public-service broadcasting (PSB) should be redefined for the digital age. This year we will consult on what services should be provided – and how they might be delivered, funded and secured for the future.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, millions of people and businesses have had to adapt to home working – relying as never before, and in every corner of the UK, on good broadband and mobile services. This has underlined the importance of investing in gigabit-speed networks fit for the future.

Ofcom has been working to support this. We are adapting our regulatory approach to support investment in new fibre broadband networks, with pricing rules that provide a fair return for investors tomorrow, while ensuring people can still afford good broadband today.

People also need better connections on the move. We are preparing to auction new spectrum to support 5G networks, and we are holding mobile operators to their commitments to roll out good-quality 4G signals to remote parts of the UK within six years. We provided technical advice on their targets, which the operators agreed with Government, and we are making them legally binding.

As the regulator, we recognise the challenges posed to our sectors by the severe social and economic disruption of Covid-19. As the country adjusts to a new phase, we will continue to
aim for sensible, supportive regulation – while holding companies to account and ensuring they serve their customers and audiences to the best possible standard.

Above all, companies must still treat people fairly. Following interventions by Ofcom, telecoms firms are now paying automatic compensation when things go wrong. They are telling customers about their contract status, providing guaranteed broadband speeds, and letting people switch easily to an alternative provider.

Ofcom too must continue to adapt and innovate as a regulator. We are appointing specialists  to help us apply data more effectively in our decisions, and to understand its latest uses within industry. In addition, our Technology team is building on work to ensure that telecom firms keep their networks secure, as the UK Government plans enhanced duties for Ofcom to protect our fibre and 5G networks from cyber threats.

Finally, this year we continued to report on the protected characteristics of TV and radio workers, highlighting where opportunities should be extended. For the first time, we collected data on the socio-economic background of people in television; and we established a Diversity Advisory Panel of industry experts to provide new insights into how broadcasters can draw on the best talents from every section of society.

For our part, Ofcom is now revitalising its diversity and inclusion strategy, planning new targets and working hard to make sure that we are representative of the country and nations we serve. This will be a personal priority for me as Ofcom’s new Chief Executive.