Annual Report 2020/21 – Chief Executive's report

Dame Melanie DawesDame Melanie Dawes

Over the past twelve months, we have learned that being connected is everything.

In my first twelve months as Chief Executive, I felt that personally. Unable to meet most Ofcom staff, I saw colleagues collaborate remotely with great professionalism. We are looking forward to working together in person again, but we’ve learned new ways to be more flexible in the future.

The past year has also meant further disruption for our industries. This has underlined Ofcom’s purpose as a regulator, and a need to be agile in response to change, while keeping long-term focus.

One example was our review of wholesale telecoms, which included setting out how prices will be regulated for the next five years. We included measures to safeguard accessible broadband today, while promoting investment in the networks of tomorrow. Our decisions will allow operators to phase out century-old copper wires in favour of gigabit-speed, full-fibre broadband, with the regulatory certainty they need to connect homes and offices at record speed.

In a connected world, our networks must not only be fast; they must be safe. Ofcom is gearing up for new duties to ensure that telecoms firms operate secure and resilient networks, working closely with the National Cyber Security Centre.

In the coming months we will inform communication providers as to how we will monitor their compliance with new legislation in this area, and carry out intelligence-led stress tests to help them close any security gaps. We will keep advising Government to ensure that the UK’s telecoms networks are not overly reliant on a single manufacturer. And we will play our part in helping to tackle scams that rely on phone calls and text messages, a growing problem that demands close work with Government, industry and the police.

As we look to the future, Ofcom too is evolving and taking on important new duties. In December 2020, as the Government prepared legislation to impose a duty of care on social media firms, it tasked Ofcom with the job of enforcing the new rules.

Our approach here will be guided by online users’ needs and expectations, and rooted in our long-standing experience of balancing freedom of expression with protection from harm. We will significantly grow our expertise in digital technologies, data analytics and cyber security, and build a new hub in Manchester to serve as a base for Ofcom’s work.

As a precursor to our online safety role, in the coming year we begin regulating apps and websites – established in the UK – whose main purpose is to share video among users. These providers must take steps to protect users from serious harm such as incitement to hatred, violence and criminal content. We have already worked with video platforms to enrol them in our rules, and commissioned pioneering research on the tools and techniques they can use to make their services safer, especially for children.

As our role on internet safety expands further, we will expand our expertise. We have hired specialists to help us apply data effectively in our decisions, and to understand its latest uses within industry. And we’ve developed a programme to help us respond to emerging technology.

That is already helping to inform our regulation. In December, for example, we set out a new strategy for managing the UK’s radio spectrum. It will enable wireless innovation in areas such as automated factories, agriculture and monitoring the environment to understand the effects of climate change.

I hope this report demonstrates Ofcom’s passion and determination to make communications work for everyone.

Likewise, in broadcasting we’re reforming our regulation to take account of changing technology and audience needs in an increasingly personalised world of viewing and listening, across an unprecedented number of digital platforms.

External partnerships are also crucial to effective regulation, and we have stepped up our cooperation with the Competition and Markets Authority, the Financial Services Authority and the Information Commissioner’s Office – launching a joint plan of work on online projects to pool our expertise and resources.

These are just some of the ways Ofcom is building for the future. But amid all the change and adaptation, we won’t lose sight of long-standing priorities – such as helping to develop media skills and close the digital divide, through our Making Sense of Media programme; and challenging broadcasters to increase their relevance to a new generation by broadening their workforce, with a new expectation to assess the geographic diversity of their staff.

I hope this report demonstrates Ofcom’s passion and determination to make communications work for everyone: promoting stronger networks, brilliant UK content and a safer online world.

As our country emerges from a uniquely challenging year, when communication mattered more than ever before, we understand the importance of getting that right.

Dame Melanie Dawes
Chief Executive