Looking back at Ofcom’s work in 2021
2021 has been another landmark year across the globe, and it’s been no different at Ofcom. We’ve been working hard this year to protect people, help them get better deals, and making sure our research gives us the understanding to help us to do the best possible job, all while keeping an eye on standards across TV and radio.
And looking to the future, we’ve grown our skills and capabilities in areas such as telecoms security and online safety, as we prepare to take on responsibility for helping people to live a safer life online. We’ve also opened our Manchester office, which will be the base for many of these digital and technology-focused roles.
For now, here’s a look back at some of the work we’ve done over the past year, giving you an idea of the breadth of the work we’ve been carrying out.
January – shining a light on tomorrow’s technology
We published Technology Futures, a report taking look at some of the emerging technologies that could shape the way we live, communicate and entertain ourselves in the future. Maintaining an awareness of new technology and the effects it could have on communications services helps us to make sure everyone gets the most out of these services, as well as helping us to protect them from any risks that might arise.
February - O2 fined £10.5m for overcharging customers
We fined O2 £10.5m after billing errors meant the mobile phone company overcharged mobile customers who left it. When a customer leaves a mobile provider, the company provides a final bill setting out any remaining fees and charges the customer has to pay before their account is closed. Between at least 2011 and 2019, an error in O2’s systems meant many people were billed for some charges twice. Over 250,000 customers were billed incorrectly, amounting to a total of £40.7m in overcharging. Around 140,000 customers actually paid the extra charges, paying a total of £2.4m. The money raised from O2’s fine was passed on to HM Treasury.
March – Ramping up the rollout of full-fibre broadband
We confirmed how we will regulate the wholesale telecoms markets used to deliver broadband, mobile and business connections in the UK, for the next five years and beyond. This will support investment in faster broadband from a range of competing companies - helping to drive the UK’s full fibre future. Our recent stats show around eight million UK homes can now access full-fibre broadband, with availability increasing at its faster-ever rate.
April – Digital divide narrows during lockdown
Our latest media literacy research was published, suggesting that the UK’s digital divide narrowed during the coronavirus pandemic. Our research showed the proportion of homes without internet access fell from 11% to 6% of homes year-on-year. We also found that adults with previously limited digital skills have embraced online shopping, digital banking and video calling friends and family – while younger people acted as IT support, helping older or less digitally-confident friends and relatives get connected.
May – Online Safety Bill published
The Government published its Online Safety Bill, proposing new responsibilities for Ofcom that aim to help to keep people safe online. Under the bill, search services, social media platforms, and other online services that enable user-generated content to be shared between users must mitigate the risk of harm arising from illegal content, for example by minimising the spread of such content. Ofcom already has experience of tackling harmful content and protecting freedom of expression, through our role regulating TV and radio programmes. We are also the regulator for video sharing platforms established in the UK. The bill is expected to enter parliament in 2022.
June – Recommendations for public service media in the digital age
In June we recommended an overhaul of laws to make sure public service media survives and thrives in the digital age. Our recommendations to Government marked the conclusion of Small Screen: Big Debate – an in-depth review on the future of public service media. Our review made it clear that public service programming remains highly valued by UK audiences, and the pandemic only reinforced this. But we also found that broadcasters must speed up their digital plans to maintain a strong link with audiences, and the regulatory system also needs to be updated.
July – Ofcom investigation helps to convict hoax coastguard caller
We played a key role in an investigation that led to a man being convicted of making hoax emergency calls to the coastguard. The man made 19 hoax calls between June and August 2019, falsely claiming people or vessels needed to be rescued at sea – resulting in ten callouts estimated to have cost a total of around £170,000. Evidence gathered by our spectrum engineers enabled Police Scotland to focus their investigations on a particular area, helping to identify the culprit. Our spectrum team does a vital job in tackling interference and misuse of the airwaves used for communications services.
August - Brits spend a third of 2020 watching TV and video
Our annual study of the UK’s media habits was published, showing that adults in the UK sought solace in screens and streaming in 2020, spending a third of their time watching TV and online video. With people across the UK under some form of lockdown restrictions for much of the previous year, more than 2,000 hours were spent watching TV and online video. That’s a daily average of five hours and 40 minutes – 47 minutes more than in 2019. The change was mainly driven by people spending almost twice as much time watching subscription streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+.
September – Making it easier than ever to switch provider
We announced a new switching process that will make it easier and quicker than ever to switch your broadband or home phone provider. Under the ‘One Touch Switch’ process, you will only need to contact your new home broadband provider to switch, and you won’t need to speak to your current provider before making the move. This will apply to all home broadband users, including cable and full-fibre customers. This means you can switch between different networks or technologies – for example, from a provider using the Openreach network to one using CityFibre’s, or from Virgin Media to Hyperoptic.
October - 45 million people targeted by scam calls and texts
Our research found almost 45 million people have been on the receiving end of potential scam texts or calls over a three-month period. More than eight in 10 people said they had received a suspicious message, in the form of either a text, recorded message or live phone call to a landline or mobile. This represents an estimated 44.6 million adults in the UK. We encourage people to flag suspicious text messages to the 7726 service and report calls to Action Fraud
November – Thousands of phone boxes to be saved
Thousands of vital phone boxes around the UK will be protected from closure, under plans we announced in November. As part of the move to digital phone lines, which will require investment to upgrade phone boxes, BT is currently assessing which ones are no longer needed and can be decommissioned. But under the current process for removing payphones, some that are needed by local communities risk being withdrawn. So, we proposed clearer, stronger rules to safeguard phone boxes that are needed against removal.
December – Stronger protections for parcel customers
We proposed new protections to make sure companies provide fairer treatment for people sending and receiving parcels in the UK. More than ten million parcels are delivered on an average day in the UK. Many deliveries are problem-free, and customers’ overall satisfaction is high. But when things go wrong, customers often encounter problems. So, we set out plans for improving how delivery firms handle complaints, and new rules to make sure disabled people are treated fairly by postal companies.