Diversity, equal pay, and mobile coverage in the UK: Ofcom outlines future plans

The diversity situation in the broadcast industry is “pretty grim”, admitted Ofcom’s Chief Executive, Sharon White, during the regulator’s Annual Plan event in London this week. The session is open to the public and offers an opportunity for attendees to hear – and question – the organisation’s strategies for the comms industry over 2018/19.

Whilst the presentations, from across the scope of Ofcom’s business, focussed predominantly on network investment and “putting the consumer at the heart” of all it does, there remained a couple of spotlight-grabbing elephants in the room: diversity and pay discrimination.

These were touched upon by Siobhan Walsh, Director, Content Policy, during her speech detailing Ofcom’s intent to regulate standards and delivery of content. In addition to an annual report on the BBC’s performance and evolution, Ofcom will also be “looking at areas of diversity, and particularly how the BBC portrays and represents our diverse communities.”

During the Q&A session which concluded the event, the audience was quick to probe the Ofcom panel on its proposed diversity summit, as well as pay discrimination at the BBC. The organisation has “tried to do a lot of data gathering over the past few months”, to give “a baseline position of what diversity looks like in broadcast”, commented White. Ofcom’s “initial thinking” has been to gather the heads of the five mains public service broadcasters, to “talk through quite frankly where we are, and also what has and hasn’t worked.” Considering the recent escalations around gender equality and pay discrepancies, this should make for an interesting discussion!

Whether or not Ofcom has a role to play in pay discrimination is, according to White, still a topic of internal conversation. The regulator will progress its review of diversity on-screen and off, and consider whether looking at remuneration should form part of this. Ofcom’s commitment to diversity, said White, could include an examination of “organisations’ commitment and track record in terms of equal pay.” Watch this space!

The government’s introduction of a universal service obligation (USO) for broadband last year – part of its Digital Strategy – formed another point of discussion at the event. This is meant to ensure that everyone in the UK has access to internet speeds of at least 10Mbps by 2020, a benchmark set by Ofcom, based on the requirements of the average family. There will be “lots of work happening this year”, said White, to ensure that in the future – and post-Brexit – the UK’s digital infrastructure reflects the modern economy.

Clive Carter, Director of Strategy and Policy, elaborated, promising further investment in copper, fibre and mobile infrastructure. In August it was reported that the UK’s average broadband speed places us at an embarrassing 31st in world, behind most of Europe, so its vital these promises come to fruition. The other challenge which plagues many in the UK is the lack of mobile coverage; less than half of the country has access to 4G coverage from all four operators.

This is an “enduring concern” admitted Charles Jenne, Policy Director, Spectrum Group. Jennes touched on Ofcom’s plans this year to provide consumers with information on coverage, including regular updates of its online mapping tool, and ensuring the data is accessible to all. Mobile operators are required to provide calls-and-text coverage to 90% of the UK, and O2 must deliver an indoor 4G signal to at least 98% of premises. Anyone who’s struggled, one arm aloft and eyes glued to their screen, to get phone signal (i.e. all of us), will be keeping an eye on whether these obligations are met this year.

A final concern which shows no sign of demise is fake news. Whilst the origins of misinformation usually stem from the online domain, content can quickly spread via TV, radio, VoD services, over the airwaves and across operator networks – all of the areas Ofcom is required to monitor. This arose in the panel discussion, to which an Ofcom representative replied that the body is being “cautious” at present, with an aim to first gain a fuller understanding of the fake news issue. Ofcom has no desire, currently, to extensively regulate the online space: although merely a “thought bubble” at present, White admitted that at some stage Ofcom may need to flesh out just what kind of role it should play in this regard.

The event presented a whistle-stop tour of Ofcom’s intentions for this year, and also covered areas like shared spectrum, competition, the interaction between the electricity and communications sectors, an interactive service quality tool, a new BBC TV channel in Scotland, empowering consumers and preventing harm.

Against a backdrop of digital transformation, recent moves by Disney, a Sky/Fox merger, and (in)action over equal pay, Ofcom has a tough workload for the year ahead!

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