Speech given by Dame Melanie Dawes to the Enders Analysis/Deloitte ‘Media and Telecoms 2021 & Beyond’ conference
Dame Melanie Dawes gives a speech to the Enders Conference, 10 March 2021.
Thank you to Claire and everyone at Enders for holding this week’s conference. Last year’s took place in my first week at Ofcom and it was such a great introduction to the industry. It gave me my only chance to meet many of you in person.
And what a year it has been since then.
It has demonstrated so clearly what the communications industries are for, and the vital part they play in our economy and society.
I want to start by thanking everyone across our sectors for all you have done – and are still doing – to help the country stay connected during the pandemic.
Our telecoms and network providers have shown that the lifeblood of the UK is not just tea, but also strong, resilient broadband and phone services.
Our postal operators have managed a huge rise in demand for home deliveries as we switched our shopping online.
Our broadcasters – from the public service broadcasters through to businesses like Sky, Discovery and Netflix – have kept people educated and entertained during the long hours at home.
We have been particularly reminded of how much we need high-quality and accurate news services, providing an anchor of trust amid a sea of misinformation.
The online platforms of course have been central to our lives during lockdown. They kept friends, families and businesses connected. Twitter, Facebook and Google sought to address a huge flow of misinformation about the virus, and to promote trusted sources of news. They have more to do, but these steps were necessary and welcome.
What you have achieved has been pretty extraordinary. You did it in the face of huge commercial uncertainty, with unprecedented operational restrictions and while leading your organisations from your own homes.
The future of our industries
In a crisis you do learn about what really matters, and you learn what you have.
My first year at Ofcom has shown me the resilience, and commitment to customers, across the industries we regulate.
It has confirmed that telecoms, broadcasting and online media are ever more central to our economy and society.
It’s also demonstrated that the pace of change is increasing at an amazing rate.
Take telecoms. In 2020, the average household was using over 14 times as much broadband data and 7 times as much mobile data as in 2013. Speeds were 4 times higher. And yet people were getting all this while spending less: around £5 a month less on broadband and £16 a month less on mobile.
In the last year alone, use of broadband data on Openreach’s network has more than doubled. Mobile use will rise again this year as we all get out and about, and as more 5G products launch.
And the way we use our communications services has changed so much too. Who would have thought we could hold conferences like this over a video stream. As many people now use WhatsApp each day as those who use traditional text messaging.
Changes in how we watch television accelerated in the past year. On average we spent an hour a day watching subscription services such as Netflix or DisneyPlus in 2020, compared to about half that in 2019.
Nearly half of all adults online now see streaming services as their main way of watching TV, and that rises to two-thirds amongst younger adults.
In the online world this past year companies like Zoom have come from nowhere, and even amongst the giants like Microsoft, we’ve seen years of digital transformation in a matter of months.
Ofcom’s approach for the future
So what does all this mean for Ofcom as we look ahead?
Our mission – to make communications work for everyone – has guided us since we first started out nearly twenty years ago. It has never felt more important.
It has been a great pleasure getting to know my colleagues in Ofcom in the past year – I feel very lucky to work with such committed, expert and talented people.
In the years ahead we will navigate our way through the changes facing our industries by following the same clear principles as we have always done.
We will always put the interests of the consumer and citizen at the heart of what we do, focusing on what the country needs across our four nations.
We will empower our sectors to deliver. Good regulation involves creating a level playing field, with fair competition driving a fair deal for the consumer. Where markets can find the solution, that’s what we will support.
And we will always make our decisions independently, without fear or favour, and on the back of clear and transparent evidence and research.
Over the next few years we’re expecting to focus on the following big three areas.
Networks and communications
First, on the telecoms side, we want consumers and businesses throughout the UK to benefit from new high-speed networks; to have confidence that these are secure and resilient; and to be treated fairly by their providers.
Our broadband and mobile networks have stood up well to the challenge of the last year, but demands on them will only accelerate so we can’t stand still.
As a country we need a big increase in full-fibre broadband and other gigabit-speed networks. Fibre to the home is now available to nearly one in five homes, and those lucky enough to have it know it isn’t just about higher speeds, it’s also a lot more reliable.
In a few weeks’ time we will be publishing our Access Review, setting the framework for wholesale investment for the next five years and beyond. I am encouraged by ambitious plans across the industry, from existing providers and new ones. Our aim is to support and grow competition in the network build, so consumers have a choice of high-speed, reliable networks that offer good value.
We will also support investment and innovation in mobile infrastructure. The UK was the first country in Europe to see all four of our networks offering 5G to their consumers. Ofcom’s current spectrum auction will release even more 5G-ready airwaves across the UK.
With so much of our lives now spent online, we depend on our networks to be resilient, particularly to security threats. Ofcom will receive strengthened powers later this year to ensure operators continue to invest in the security of our networks.
Fundamentally, we believe that competition is the best way to give consumers the connections they need. We will continue to focus on empowering customers to take advantage of the choices available, while being ready to step in when we need to, to protect their interests.
Broadcasting and radio
Turning to broadcast and radio, our second big area of work is to support the shift to digital services.
We have a hugely vibrant creative economy in the UK, and some of the strongest and most trusted news and entertainment brands in the world.
The strength of our system rests on a uniquely British blend of public service providers alongside the commercial sector. This brings variety and resilience with plurality of business models, and brands with different histories and legacies. It all adds up to a great offer for the public.
But as we set out in our report on Public Service Media in December 2020, disruption to the industry through digital transformation, while offering amazing new choices to the viewer and listener, risks losing some things we really care about.
For all that we appreciate the global players such as Netflix and Disney, we love TV and radio that is rooted in our communities, and reflects British life in all its fantastic diversity.
Our research shows clearly that the public values trusted radio and TV news services more than ever before.
In an era of polarisation, cancel culture and multiple sources of news – some of them unreliable, and some coupled with deliberate disinformation – accurate, impartial and trusted news, under-pinned by regulation that prizes freedom of speech, is more important than ever as a core pillar of UK life.
Ofcom’s final priority in the coming years will be of course to take on new responsibilities for online safety regulation, following Government legislation later this year.
Our approach as a regulator will rest on two important principles.
The first is knowing what consumers think and need. Social media has brought huge benefits to the economy and society. But Ofcom’s research shows that a third of people now think the risks of being online – either to them or their children – outweigh the benefits. Six in ten online adults – and eight in ten older children – say they have had at least one harmful experience online in the past 12 months. So most people support tighter rules, as the Government is proposing.
The second principle is the need to preserve freedom of expression while tackling harmful content.
Freedom of speech is the lifeblood of the internet and it is central to our democracy, our values and to modern society.
Ofcom brings years of experience of striking this balance in our role regulating TV and radio, and it will be the foundation of our approach to online safety too.
As our role expands, we will need to invest in new skills. We are already the regulator for video-sharing platforms established in the UK and have built capacity and expertise, which we’ll be growing in the future.
We will also deepen our partnership with our fellow regulators. I am delighted that Andrea Coscelli is speaking to you later this morning about the work of the Competition and Markets Authority. As Ofcom, the CMA and the Information Commissioner’s Office plan for new responsibilities in the digital sphere, we need to work together even more closely on behalf of the consumer to make sure that the platforms compete fairly, use people’s data appropriately and protect against harm.
Today we have published a new joint workplan (PDF, 466.2 KB), as the Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, for the year ahead, marking a step change in our joint working as three independent regulatory bodies.
I look forward to working with you all in the years ahead – to make communications work for everyone.
As the pace of change continues to challenge and reshape our sectors, Ofcom will aim to unlock the competitive power of the sectors we regulate. We will always act independently and on the basis of high-quality research and evidence. And the needs and experiences of the consumer will be at the heart of all that we do.
As we come out of lockdown, I look forward to meeting you all, in person, very soon.