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Ofcom chief exec to quit

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Comment Stephen Carter is to stand down as chief exec of Ofcom after more than three years in the job.

The former NTL boss will continue to be in charge of Ofcom until 15 October, but will cease to be involved in economic, competition, and policy decisions from the beginning of August. He will also be unable to scout around for a new job while he is still employed by Ofcom.

The vacancy is to be advertised from this weekend and anyone interested in the role will need to not only impress senior bosses at the regulator, but will also need government approval.

In a statement, Ofcom chairman David Currie said: "Stephen took on an immensely challenging task - and has performed outstandingly. His legacy is an effective and credible organisation which plays an important role in delivering greater choice, lower prices and greater innovation."

While there is little doubt that Carter's reign has covered a period of immense change in the telecoms industry (just one of those sectors represented by Ofcom) it is harder to say what impact the regulator has had on these changes.

After all, when Carter was appointed to the post early in 2003 he came in for a fair amount of flak, with one member of the government's influential Broadband Stakeholders Group (BSG) describing Carter's appointment as "most depressing" and a "victory for big business over consumers". It was said that Carter's appointment would result in consumers being "shafted" and that the interests of the telcos and media giants would be served at the expense of ordinary people.

In part there is some truth in this, as Ofcom's record of consumer protection is not what it might be. Only this week it was heavily criticised for failing to do enough to combat the mis-selling of phone services.

In the 12 months since the regulator introduced mandatory guidelines on mis-selling, BT says it's received more than 200,000 complaints about dodgy sales tactics, while Trading Standards has called for more action against rogue phone companies.

Ofcom has also come under fire for its failure to react more quickly when ISPs - such as Bulldog last year and E7even - struggle to provide a service that is fit for purpose. In both cases, Ofcom only intervened after months on the sideline and scores of complaints.

With regards to Ofcom's other major contribution - the Strategic Review of Telecoms - it is still too early to say whether the partial splitting of BT has created a more equal and transparent telecoms sector. Clearly, there are some in the industry who still believe BT is dragging its heels.

But the framework for a workable solution to end BT's dominance of the sector has been put in place, although some are still unsure whether this is a blueprint for real change. Earlier this week, for example, operators warned that BT's honeymoon period was nearly over. What next? A return to rowing and smashing plates?

Then again, after several false starts, local loop unbundling is also beginning to take off giving genuine competition in parts of the UK.

Perhaps the best judge of Ofcom's contribution to date can be summed up by asking this simple question: would Oftel, Ofcom's predecessor, have been able to carry out the review of the telecoms industry, forced BT to sign up to more than 200 or so legally binding undertakings, and managed to kick-start local loop unbundling as a commercially viable alternative to wholesale services from BT?

The answer? Not a hope. Not in a million years. No bloody way.

If Oftel was around today it would still be tied up in knots by BT. Far from carrying out a root and branches assessment of the telecoms sector it would still be holding subcommittee meetings deciding on the colour of the cover of the eventual report and whether to use Arial or Times New Roman for the text. As for the size of the text...

Make no mistake, there are plenty of areas where Ofcom has to continue its regulatory work. But Carter's reign has been positive and, crucially, it has set out the framework for a new era of regulation. It will be up to his successor to ensure that those in the industry work within that framework. If they don't, then the regulator has to have the mettle to use all the regulatory sanctions at its disposal. ®

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