“You might say that, Minister…”

In the wake of the Vince Cable debacle before Christmas, which led to him being stripped of responsibility for the proposed acquisition by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation of the remaining shares in BSkyB, the Government has now issued a written statement detailing all of the responsibilities which have been transferred from BIS to DCMS.  As well as losing merger and competition cases in the media and telecoms sectors, BIS has also lost telecoms policy (including implementation of EU telecoms policy), broadband policy (including BDUK) and internet policy. 

Telecoms is an important policy area which has rested with the department of trade (as BIS then was) since competition was introduced in the 1980s.  Some might question whether it is sensible to charge the department of Culture, Media and Sport with looking after an area of such crucial importance to the UK economy.  Stephen Timms, MP, who had ministerial responsibility for telecoms in the Labour government, has described it as a “disaster” and DCMS as a “lightweight department”.  And yet the trend for involving DCMS in telecoms policy began under the Labour government. 

The author of the Digital Britain report in 2009, the Communications Minister Stephen Carter (a.k.a. Lord Carter of Barnes), reported to both Peter Mandelson at BIS and Ben Bradshaw at DCMS.  The Digital Economy Act was also a joint effort.  You can even trace this back to the Communications Act of 2003 which established Ofcom, a merger of Oftel with the various broadcasting authorities. “Media” begat “new media” and the telecoms industry grew up to become the “communications sector”.   Just as the IT, telecoms, media and content industries have converged, so have government departments.  

Moreover, the civil servants at BIS, who have been working on telecoms policy under both Labour and the Coalition, will no doubt transfer across to DCMS or “work closely” with DCMS to continue their work.  Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt were, and still are, the ministers in charge of Digital Britain.

Lord Carter appeared to understand the importance of the country’s communications infrastructure to the UK economy as a whole:

“Like energy and transport, the demands upon the infrastructure are constantly growing and the challenge of coping with these demands will move from complex to critical if we fail to take the necessary action.  … Next generation fixed fibre and cable networks offer not just conventional high-definition video enternatinment and games, but potentially more revolutionary benefits for our economy and society – telepresence, e-healthcare in the home and, for small and medium sized businesses, access to cloud computing…”

So it’s vital that DCMS gets it right.  Through the BDUK tender process, the Coalition Government now has the chance to introduce competition and innovation in the provision of superfast (by which I mean at least 40 Mbps, symmetric) broadband to all those currently struggling with connectivity.  A mark of the success of the policy team will be the exent to which a broad range of ventures and enterprises are able successfully to bid to deliver these projects.  A country carpeted with BT’s “up to” 40 Mbps fibre-to-the-cabinet would, some might say, represent a policy failure.

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About Ayres End Consulting
Telecoms consultant specialising in interconnect, regulation & public policy.

One Response to “You might say that, Minister…”

  1. Rob Bratby says:

    Great post. Hopefully the advantages of having clear lines of accountability will outweigh the disadvantages of it being DCMS rather than BIS.

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