The first phase of consultation on the next Communications Bill closes today.
To say the review, which kicked off in May, was long awaited would be something of an understatement. In a world where the boundaries between TV, the internet and video on-demand are increasingly blurred, there are divisive issues to address on how, or if, we regulate the media.
But if you are expecting a clear vision for the communications industry to emerge in the next few weeks, you are likely to be disappointed. Today’s consultation represents the first tentative jabs in a bout likely to go the full twelve rounds.
The next major step towards actual legislation is a Green Paper at the end of the year. Barring a couple of speeches between now and then, the public won’t get to hear a great deal of ministers’ specific plans. What’s more, it will then be at least another year before a draft bill emerges.
It was clear before last year’s election that those now in charge of communications policy have long had big ambitions for the Communications sector. In opposition the Conservative double act of Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey were stressing how important world class communications networks and creative industries were, and Number 10 interest in the Shoreditch Tech City project has been immense.
It’s not just that it is politically sexy to spend time on the cutting edge with some of the world’s hottest brands; there is a serious economic strategy at play here. The Government wants to diversify the economy and reduce the country’s dependence on financial services. The communications industry has been earmarked to take up some of the slack.
This is not without justification: the internet economy is estimated to contribute £100bn to the UK and this will only increase. By the time any Act comes into force, the internet could make up 10% of GDP. And the entire landscape has shifted since 2003.
So taking the time to make sure the Government’s strategy supports economic growth and is actually workable makes sense. The Labour Government’s very last breath was spent passing the Digital Economy Act, rushed through the Commons as an election loomed. Intended to bring the Digital Britain strategy to life, it is now remembered solely for controversial measures aimed at reducing infringement of copyright, measures still subject to legal challenges.
Clearly new ministers will be aiming for a less divisive legacy. But the Government will have three stiff tests to pass if it wants to reach 2015 with a landmark piece of legislation.
Firstly, how can any legislation regulating such a disruptive and innovative sector be future proofed? No discussion of the Communications Bill is complete without someone saying that the internet isn’t mentioned once in the 2003 Act, but who can predict the next big shock?
Secondly, how big does Jeremy Hunt want his bang to be? For every business who believes regulation is choking the sector, there will be one which claims it is vital for a level playing field. How willing will ministers be deregulate if this means sounding the death knell for businesses which rely on Ofcom to protect their market?
Finally, can the Government throw the necessary resource at the project? With the Olympics dominating the DCMS agenda, it has some tough choices to make about where priorities lie.
In each of these areas, the role of industry will be very important. For anyone in the media, communications or creative industries the Communications Review presents a real opportunity to set out their vision for how regulation can be made fit for the decade ahead: if they don’t, others will.
And if the early rounds of sparring seem inconclusive, they might still show the way to knockout blows later.
Sam Sharps is an Associate Director and media and technology specialist at Portland.