Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards delivers keynote speech at PICTFOR’s Annual Dinner 2014

Ed Richards 081214

To round off PICTFOR’s 2014, our Treasurer Lord Toby Harris welcomed members and parliamentarians to the House of Lords – or, as he drily described it, the “business end of the house” – for PICTFOR’s Annual Dinner. The dinner began with the Shadow Minister for Digital Government & Cyber Security, and PICTFOR co-chair, Chi Onwurah MP introducing outgoing Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards as keynote speaker.

During a wide-ranging speech Richards noted how, during his 11 year tenure at Ofcom, there had been a grand total of 7 different Secretaries of State, a figure remarkably similar to the number of iPhone iterations over the same period. Richards illustrated the incredible pace of change since Ofcom’s inception in 2003; a time when Facebook did not exist, Google were yet to become a publicly listed company, and camera phones had only just begun to experience commercial success.

Richards argued that Ofcom had experienced a ‘great many successes but that much was still to do’, particularly in the core areas of digital infrastructure and innovation. He called for the UK to aspire to the quality of digital infrastructure found in South Korea and to the level of technological innovation enjoyed by Silicon Valley. Guests heard that the sector’s need for a delicate blend of investment, competition and regulation was a balancing act of great importance, and something that required careful monitoring and almost constant reassessment.

Richards reminded guests that the country’s copper telecoms infrastructure was installed for fixed line telephones and not designed for today’s demand for broadband, but noted the immense improvements in speeds and services enjoyed by domestic internet users nevertheless. The forty fold increase in domestic download speeds since 2003 (500Kbps – 23Mbps) had been matched by a rise in consumers’ expectations. Richards further pointed to the significant cheapening of monthly internet subscriptions despite faster speeds, with average monthly spend down 23% over the same period.

Turning to spectrum, Richards stated that the world would become more mobile and more wireless and that spectrum would have to be used as intensively as possible. He admitted that it had been very difficult to communicate with existing spectrum holders over the concept of ‘ownership’ and warned the spectrum world to expect change. On mobile spectrum usage, Richards reaffirmed commitments for the UK to achieve 98% 4G coverage before 2017 and asserted that the ‘spectrum revolution’ would continue for years to come. Having noted Ofcom’s successes in establishing spectrum as a tradable commodity in a relatively liberalised market, Richards praised Ofcom’s work to protect consumers in a non-intrusive way and made special mention of its work to protect consumers from mid-contract price rises.

Whilst it has been a decade of incredible change,  both in terms of rapid technical innovation and market development, Richards explained that some areas had been remarkably resilient – namely television and public service broadcasting. He said that the pay-TV sector had become more competitive but that more needed to be done. Commenting on Ofcom’s expanded role, he was pleased to announce that Ofcom was now 33.3% cheaper! However, Richards expressed concern that the communications industry wasn’t working well enough for SME’s, particularly in relation to the availability of broadband.

Looking to the future, Richards revealed that he was excited by the prospect of 5G and the ‘Internet of Things’, but stressed the need to develop greater commercial understanding of the technologies if the UK was to become world leading in those fields. Richards concluded that the structure of the communications market was changing, subject to the forces of convergence between content platforms and physical networks and between fixed and mobile networks.

Following his concluding remarks, Richards aptly dealt with a plethora of testing questions from PICTFOR members and parliamentarians. The outgoing Chief Exec was asked questions on a broad range of topics; from Estonian human rights, online safety and copyright infringement, to data, privacy, the regulation of the BBC and smart cities. Responding to the suggestion that the UK should establish broadband access as a human right, Richards argued that whilst it should be a universal service, he did not consider it to be a human right in the same league as the freedom of speech. Taking Ofcom’s already extensive remit into account, Richards offered his successor just one piece of advice: “Don’t try and do everything!”

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