So it turns out that the Communications Green Paper is rather like the extremely seasick man on a cross-Channel ferry – for the first half he is afraid he is going to die and for the second half he is afraid he isn’t.
Last month the Department for Culture, Media, the Olympics and Sport (DCMS) decided to put the Communications Green Paper out of its misery and kill it off, pure and simple.
Having been expected in December, then January, then March, then April, then May, secretary of state Jeremy Hunt announced that the Green Paper would not appear and instead we would have five seminars.
Yes, of course. Because when it comes to one of the most important industries in our economy, one that is the platform for innovation and increased productivity, one faced by rapidly evolving technology and converging regulatory environments, when we are already confused by a variety of ad-hoc initiatives – super-connected cities, mobile infrastructure projects, fibre enterprise zones – what we really need at this time is not a vision or a strategy or a coherent plan. No, what we really need is a seminar. Five of them and all will be well.
There are times when life not only imitates art, it exaggerates it beyond all plausibility. An episode of ‘Yes Minister’ could not have more completely exposed the absence of any credible policy direction.
A coalition of U-turns
What is also revealing is the reason the secretary of state gave.
As the Guardian put it: “Justifying the U-turn on the green paper, the DCMS said that it did not believe that a "root and branch" reform of communications regulation is required.”
I would agree that a root and branch reform is probably not required. The 2003 Communications Act, which Labour passed after extensive consultation, looked 10 years in the future, identified convergence as the big theme, and put in place the institutional building blocks to support a converged world.
And we got it just about right. In 2012, Ofcom still has a world-leading reputation as a regulator, with most of the powers it needs to address the increasingly complex communications world. That’s not to deny the regulatory framework isn’t looking a little frayed at the edges. The treatment of BT Premier League football rights versus BskyB’s dominant position, or Google and copyright, raise interesting issues. But given the pace of change in technology, business models and markets, it’s done pretty well.
Hunt apparently believes the fact that the regulatory framework has stood the test of a 10-year timeframe exempts him from facing the challenges ahead. I doubt there is anyone in the industry who agrees with him.
Part of government’s role is to de-risk the future to the extent that it lies in its power, so innovators can concentrate on doing what they do best and investors have the confidence to invest.
And the most cost-effective way for government to de-risk the future is to be clear about where it is headed, what it is going to do, what its ambitions are.
Now it is no secret that Jeremy Hunt has other things on his mind, his appearance at the Leveson enquiry secured neither his reputation nor his job. But even if that is the real reason behind the non-appearance of the Green Paper, industry must bring his attention back to the things that matter.
It’s too late for the Green Paper, it is an ex-paper, it has gone to meet its maker.
But there are a number of areas where we need to focus some emergency treatment. For the purposes of brevity I’ll pick just two.
Two years after coming to power the government cannot claim to have laid one additional metre of fibre. BDUK (Broadband Delivery UK) looks to have delivered a billion-pound procurement that manages to be both fragmented and monopolistic, whilst the rural economy is blighted by a lack of digital infrastructure.
In addition, as a recent parliamentary response to me made clear, the government is doing absolutely nothing to secure the Connecting Europe broadband fund even though it is a real opportunity for UK businesses to benefit from EU membership.
Ed Vaizey has taken to blaming the mobile companies for the delay in releasing essential spectrum; this may have some truth in it as things will not speed up unless he proposes to do something about it. At the same time Ofcom seems to be letting other important issues slip. In contrast to the US, the UK has made no real progress on white spaces so important to machine to machine (M2M) communications and the recent announcement that Ofcom was delaying considering Everything Everywhere’s application to launch 4G services here is a bad sign. We led the world in 2G services and have a competitive 3G market, but we are now well behind in 4G.
There are rumours that there will be major changes to DCMS once the Olympics are out of the way. If it is going to go on as the Department for Culture and Communications Chaos, then it should at least change its name to reflect that.
Chi Onwurah is shadow minister for innovation and science, and MP for Newcastle Central.
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