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06 May 2020

Ofcom: Prioritising Connection

Ofcom has recognised that in these unprecedented times, communication has never been more important. As the regulator for TV, radio, video on demand, telecommunications, mobile and postal services, Ofcom is just one of the many regulators adapting to manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In January 2020, Ofcom published its proposed ‘Plan of Work’ for 2020/2021. Since January, the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed the landscape of industries regulated by Ofcom. As such, Ofcom have released an updated Plan of Work that has been adapted to detail Ofcom’s regulatory priorities during this crisis and beyond. The plan is ‘live and flexible’ given the current uncertainty around Covid-19 and a further update will be provided in September.

Regulatory approach and priorities during Covid-19

The key priority for Ofcom during this period is to work with communications companies to make sure people stay connected and continue to be informed and entertained. This includes a particular focus on ensuring resilience of critical services such as 999 and 111, as well as prioritising support to vulnerable customers.
Ofcom, in a similar response as the Information Commissioners Office, have stated that they will adapt to take a ‘pragmatic approach to enforcement’ during the Covid-19 crisis. On 24th March, Ofcom announced it would suspend all existing, and pause any future, consultation deadlines and information requests. While Ofcom stresses that compliance with regulation is important, the regulator will be flexible towards specific non-compliance provided the decision supports critical services, vulnerable people and those relying on communications services. Ofcom have rescheduled planned work programmes to ensure businesses can focus on business-critical matters during this time. A word of warning for businesses on this ‘pragmatic approach’, Ofcom will still expect compliance with regulatory obligations as soon as operationally and reasonably possible.
As well as regulatory flexibility, Ofcom have highlighted critical priorities to support the UK throughout the Covid-19 crisis, including:

  • Network security and resilience: Alongside telecommunications companies and the UK Government, Ofcom will focus on network resilience to facilitate the increase demand as a result of working from home and school closures.
  • Protecting and managing the airwaves: Ofcom is prioritising any action that is required to protect critical services (such as power networks) by ensuring the UK airwaves remain free from interference.
  • Keeping people connected and protecting customers: Ofcom will collaborate to provide measures to support vulnerable customers including restricting disconnection for unpaid bills and managing any high charges for hospital phone services. The dissemination of information to help people and small businesses make the most of their mobile broadband connections is a priority.
  • Access to high quality content, and maintaining trust in and reliability of TV and radio services: Audiences are relying on high quality, accurate news and content which necessitates a focus on combating disinformation. As such, Ofcom will have a particular focus on any cases involving potentially harmful broadcast content relating to Covid-19.
  • Support the Nations: Ofcom will work to ensure access to broadband, mobile and postal services in rural and remote parts of the UK, working closing with governments across the UK.
Looking forward

As well as setting out priorities for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, Ofcom have detailed the strategic themes for the coming year. The strategic areas of work relate to broadband and mobile access, fairness for customers, supporting UK broadcasting, effective online communications, enabling strong, secure networks, sustaining the postal service, innovating through regulation and supporting the EU exit transition.

Ofcom are not the only organisation conscious of the impact Covid-19 is having on businesses in the telecommunications and broadcasting industries. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee opened an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on a wide range of industries and organisations under the DCMS sectors. The inquiry will consider the effect of social and financial measures both in the immediate and long-term on areas including: culture and the creative industries; civil society; sport; tourism; heritage; publishing; media; journalism and telecoms.

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