Annual Report 2020/21 – Chair's message

Maggie CarverMaggie Carver

For Ofcom, in 2020 it was striking to witness just how quickly the tragic pandemic changed how people communicate – in ways that may endure.

When working restrictions began and office phones fell silent in 2020, the amount of time spent on mobile calls surged by 45%. Residential broadband networks became the backbone of both the UK’s digital economy and its education system. The amount of data flowing over the UK’s main broadband network doubled.

Under lockdown, the nation spent twice as long watching streaming services. Parcel volumes rose by a third to meet the UK’s online shopping needs. Our companies and networks responded brilliantly, with telecoms, tech, postal and broadcasting key workers keeping us connected, informed and entertained.

So a world without first-class communications services – which even before the pandemic lay at the heart of our personal and working lives – now seems unimaginable. Ofcom’s job has involved responding to changing consumer demands, supporting our industries through the crisis, and planning for a post-pandemic world reliant on strong networks and trusted media.

Covid-19 caused many people’s circumstances to shift suddenly – often through bereavement or financial hardship. So it was important that Ofcom continued its Fairness for Customers programme, securing commitments from broadband firms to review prices for vulnerable people. We made mobile switching easier by banning handsets being locked to a network; improved the contract rights of telecoms customers; and ensured disabled customers can access a choice of services.

We also completed our major review of wholesale broadband markets, setting out a range of measures to boost competition and investment in full-fibre networks. Those decisions are designed to lay the foundations for new telecoms networks that can serve families, business, schools and public bodies for generations to come, bringing the economic and social benefits of ultrafast broadband to everybody around the UK.

Getting a good mobile signal is equally important. So we made more airwaves available to generate additional coverage and support 5G; and monitored operators’ progress towards their commitment to bring good calls and data coverage to 90% of the UK’s geography.

The pandemic also placed renewed importance on trusted, regulated broadcasting. In a reporting year when broadcasting complaints rose significantly, we prioritised our enforcement in harmful areas such as incitement to crime, hate speech, abuse and misinformation about Covid-19.

Ofcom’s job is more important than ever: adapting to change so that our rules continue to protect communications users from harm, support the content they value and enable the services they need.

Viewers and listeners turned in huge numbers toour public service broadcasters during the early pandemic, a testament to their enduring importance at times of national significance.

But those broadcasters are facing unprecedented competition and disruption. So as well as our regular report on the BBC, in December 2020 we published our review of public service media, consulting on plans to modernise the system and secure its future.

The way people use the post is also changing fast. We carried out a comprehensive review of what people and businesses need from the service in future, as we prepare to update our regulation to reflect declining letter volumes and protect the universal service.

All these areas reflect the power of technology, social trends and new business ideas to transform how we communicate – a theme of disruption and change that has been reenforced and accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis.

Throughout that period, and in the coming years, Ofcom’s job is more important than ever: adapting to change so that our rules continue to protect communications users from harm, support the content they value and enable the services they need.

It has been a privilege for me to oversee that work as interim Ofcom Chair since January, following the decision of our former chair Lord Terry Burns to step down. Terry led our Board with dedication and skill for three years, and I – alongside our Board and everyone at Ofcom – would like to thank him wholeheartedly for his service.

Maggie Carver CBE
Interim Chair