29 December 2023

Ofcom’s 20th birthday – 20 facts for our 20 years

Today officially marks Ofcom’s 20th birthday. On 29 December 2003, our work as the communications regulator formally began.

We took over the work previously carried out by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, Office of Telecommunications (Oftel), the Radio Authority and the Radiocommunications Agency, and we’re still working hard to make communications work for everyone.

A huge amount has happened over our 20-year history, so we thought we’d round up some of the highlights and notable developments.

  1. The biggest fine we’ve implemented in our 20 years was in 2018, when we issued Royal Mail with a £50m financial penalty for breaking competition law. When we issue a fine like this, the money is paid to HM Treasury.
  2. The most complained-about TV programme over the past 20 years was Good Morning Britain, broadcast in March 2021. We received 54,453 complaints about comments made about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.Nokia 3300 from 2003 and the iPhone 15 plus the Samsung S23 from 2023
  3. It’s fair to say mobile handsets have undergone massive change in the past 20 years. In 2003 for example, the Nokia 3300 was considered cutting edge. Fast forward to 2023 and the iPhone 15 or Samsung Galaxy S23 are more likely to be the tech buff’s handset of choice.
  4. Our role across broadcast standards is one of the best-known aspects of our work. Integral to this is the Broadcasting Code, which was published in 2005. This set out the rules that broadcasters must follow – and those rules still stand today. We also concluded our first review of public service broadcasting which foresaw how viewing would shift away from traditional TV, saying ‘new digital technologies are likely to have a profound impact on the way we watch television’.
  5. We’ve seen major advances in broadband speeds since 2003. Back then, home broadband customers were able to get speeds of around 500 kbps. Now, those speeds have rocketed to an average download speed of 69.4 Mbit/s.
  6. High-definition TV might feel like the norm now, but was introduced to terrestrial TV in the UK in 2010.  Ofcom played a role in this, working to rearrange the spectrum used for digital TV broadcasting and introduce new technical broadcasting standards.
  7. Launched in 2020, small-scale DAB is an innovative radio technology which provides a low-cost way for small services to broadcast to local audiences. And it wouldn’t have come about without the work of one of our Ofcom colleagues, senior broadcast specialist Rash Mustapha. Rash researched the technology and developed prototype equipment, which raised enough interest for the Government to make funding available for trials. Legislation was later passed to establish a framework for licensing small-scale DAB services. Because of this, Rash was one of the first people inducted into the Digital Radio Hall of Fame, and he was also formally recognised by industry body Digital Radio UK.
  8. In 2017 Ofcom became the first external regulator of the BBC, after the BBC’s new charter launched on 1 January of that year. Prior to this, the BBC Trust had been responsible for regulating the broadcaster.The first ‘CRIII’ cypher was featured on a post box on the Isle of Man.
  9. 2023 saw a notable change to post boxes, following the coronation of King Charles III. The first ‘CRIII’ cypher was featured on a post box on the Isle of Man. This was the first change since 1952, when the ‘EIIR’ cypher was introduced to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
  10. The largest event Ofcom has worked on was the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. The enormous scale of the games and presence of hundreds of international broadcasters required a huge amount of planning and support. As well as working prior to the event, our colleagues were on call 24 hours a day for the six weeks of the games, and we worked closely with our fellow European regulators. This experience also helped to prepare us for similar work during the Commonwealth games in Glasgow 2014 and Birmingham in 2022.
  11. And 2023 saw Ofcom play a vital role in making sure the Eurovision Song Contest went smoothly. Hosted in Liverpool – the first time the event had taken place in the UK since 1998 – the competition was broadcast to an international audience of 162 million viewers.
  12. The number one song in the UK charts on Ofcom’s launch date was Mad World, by Michael Andrews featuring Gary Jules – the song was taken from the movie soundtrack of Donnie Darko. The number one at the time of Ofcom’s 20th anniversary is Last Christmas by Wham!, which made the top spot a whopping 39 years after it was first released.The most-watched TV show in the UK 2003 and 2023
  13. In 2003 the most-watched TV show in the UK was an episode of Coronation Street in which villain Richard Hillman confessed to his crimes – it reached an audience of 19.4 million. In 2023 the show with the highest ratings was the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, which averaged an audience of 12.8 million.
  14. The past 20 years have seen huge advances in mobile technology. For example, the first commercial 3G network was launched in 2003, but in 2023 providers are preparing to switch off that network to make room for newer and emerging technology like 4G and 5G.
  15. In 2011 we took on postal regulation, for which Postcomm had previously been responsible. We monitor the postal market in the UK, helping us to understand how well Royal Mail is performing as a business; changes in the parcel and letter markets; and customers’ experience of the postal markets. Every year we publish the main findings from our monitoring.
  16. In 2021 we published our latest research into people’s attitudes to offensive language on TV and radio, showing how attitudes have changed over the years since 2003 when we started our work in this area. We found people had limited concerns about strong language, provided it was broadcast after the watershed and sufficient warnings were given. However, audiences said they had more serious concerns about discriminatory language on TV and radio – particularly around race.
  17. While reality TV was in its relative infancy in the UK in 2003, it has boomed in popularity and coverage over the past 20 years. Thanks to Ofcom, people taking part in reality TV shows are now better protected by rules introduced in 2020.
  18. The five-year process of switching off analogue TV signals to be replaced by digital TV began in 2007. On 16 October that year, Copeland in Cumbria became the first area to be switched over. That night, BBC2 stopped transmitting in analogue, freeing up spectrum to begin broadcasting digital channels but allowing other channels to continue broadcasting in analogue before full switch over a few weeks later. Digital TV offered viewers more choice, and valuable spectrum was made available for other uses including 4G. Phone boxes around the UK
  19. The number of phone boxes across the UK has decreased from around 90,000 in 2003 to 18,000 in 2023. In 2022 we introduced new protections for phone boxes, making sure payphones in areas with poor mobile signal or high accident rates are protected for the people who need them.
  20. When we launched in 2003 we operated primarily from our London office, which is still in place. But over our 20-year existence we’ve also established offices in the UK’s nations, which is vital given that our work represents people and businesses in all corners of the UK. We opened offices in Belfast and Cardiff in 2004, followed by our Edinburgh office in 2016. We also have regional bases in Birmingham, Baldock and Warrington, and a Manchester office that was officially opened in 2021.