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MPs give Ofcom a high def battering

Don't mess with Chorley

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Ofcomwatch Ofcom received a battering before a joint Trade and Industry and Culture, Media and Sport select committee yesterday.

The session, which was scheduled to grill the telecoms regulator on its Annual Plan 2007/08 focused mainly on a number of topical, high profile issues and highlighted the ever-political nature of "independent" communications regulation.

Ofcom received most scrutiny and negative reaction from MPs in respect to its Digital Dividend Review (DDR) consultation. MPs on the committees appear to believe that a number of Ofcom's initial DDR conclusions were wrong and are slightly distrustful of leaving a public policy matter solely to the regulator.

There was a further suggestion that Ofcom's initial research on the issue of reallocating spectrum was weak and failed to consult widely enough.

On this point, Lindsay Hoyle, MP (Lab, Chorley) asked: "How do you consult with Mrs Jones of Chorley? Which local newspapers do you take out adverts in?" An answer wasn't forthcoming from Ofcom chief Ed Richards.

In particular, MPs wanted to know why Ofcom wouldn't just automatically be handing broadcasters a slice of the spectrum released by the analog switch-off, in order to deliver HD services over the DTT Freeview platform.

Ofcom CEO Ed Richards explained the dangers of gifting spectrum to any particular use given the sizeable opportunity cost that would be incurred by doing so. He said: "Nothing comes free in spectrum anymore."

Richards then went on explain that the broadcasters already have the resources on the Freeview platform to broadcast in HD if they choose to allocate resource in that way, rather than in the current configuration.

MPs remained unhappy saying most people who were buying a HD ready television thought that they would automatically be getting HD services.

In addition, the regulator flagged up the ever-growing number of compression standards available to broadcasters, making it likely that by switchover in 2012 it will be significantly easier to squeeze HD services out of the Freeview multiplex than it is today.

The regulator told the committee that Ofcom would release another DDR-related document before the summer. Expect fireworks to fly as Ofcom tries to balance a huge range of potential uses for the released allocation. This is the issue where politics and regulation meet head on.

We'll keep watching. ®

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Luke Gibbs is co-founder of the Ofcomwatch blog. Read his in-depth interview with Ofcom's chief executive Ed Richards here.

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