Meeting with Stephen Carter, Chief Executive of Ofcom
Date & Time: Wednesday 12 January 2005, 4.00 - 5.00pm.
The meeting started at 4.00pm
Malcolm Bruce: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to what is effectively the first actual meeting of the all party parliamentary group on deafness although the group has made a visit to schools outside the House. The subject today is OFCOM. Stephen Carter has very kindly agreed to come and talk to us. It is the nature of the way things operate in this House when Parliament is sitting, MPs have usually too many things in their diary and they come and go, so people may drift in, but our guests are here as well and that is just as valuable, please feel free to participate, you are all welcome to join in. Stephen is going to talk about aspects of broadcast and telecommunication generally, but also particularly subtitling and sign language transcription.
Stephen Carter: Very kind. Well good afternoon everyone. This is a useful opportunity for us to come and talk to this group, what I thought I would do is say a few words more generally about OFCOM and then get into some of the specific things I thought this group might be more interested in. I don't know how many OFCOM watchers there are in the audience, but we are just over 2 years old as an organisation, and just over a year old as an organisation with statutory authority. And in that period of time, we have addressed a whole range of different challenges in the sectors that we are responsible for. We are a public body, although as I am consistently telling people, we are an independent regulator and a competition authority, so we are not part of government, we are answerable to Parliament and this group doesn't need telling, it is a very important difference between those 2 things.
Inherent in that is a requirement to consult, to be open to hearing external views, to canvassing opinions, to listening to opinions, particularly from groups that have technical and specialist knowledge and also particular interests.
Again, for those of you that have been OFCOM watchers, you may have observed we have received not an insubstantial amount of criticism for the amount of consultation we have done. Indeed, over-consulting seems to have become an offence in the communications world, and I say here what I have said in a number of other places, we make no apology for the degree to which we have consulted with different groups because Parliament has given us a very broad range of responsibilities. In broadcasting, over and above the day to day regulatory work we are doing, we have laid out a framework for the provision of public sector broadcasting over the next 5 years; we have now agreed a timetable for the transition from analogue broadcasting to digital broadcasting with a timetable running through to 2012, with all of the consequence that will flow from that; in radio, in sound broadcasting we have just unveiled an approach to further drive the take up of digital radio services, provide more spectrum for further digital radio provision, as well as looking at licensing, more and more services and the introduction of community radio as a further tier of local specific radio provision across the country.
More generally, we have taken a whole swathe of responsibilities away from various government departments, and are adopting a far more market liberal economic approach to the allocation of spectrum as a means of encouraging innovation in an area that I would have thought would be particularly meaningful to this group, because it will lead to the development of ever more sophisticated and affordable wireless devices and making ease of use and transmission and portability of the transmission of digital entertainment and information easier to use in the home and around the office.
And in telecommunications, we are trying, after a sector that has experienced some significant economic challenges, to drive real competition back into the market, not just in alternative services, but also in alternative infrastructure, and the way in which I describe it to people is if you imagine yourself sitting on the train heading to Paris, and the minute you come out of the tunnel you turn to the person sitting next to you and say 'why did it go so slowly when it was in our country?' The answer is because they made a bigger investment in their infrastructure than we did for a much longer period of time. Well it is irritating when that happens with trains. It will be economically terminal if that happens with the telecommunications infrastructure. There are countries around the world that are marching at speed towards digital communications infrastructure in telecommunications and if we do not create an environment that encourages investment and innovation in those areas, we will find ourselves running at slower speeds and that won't be a minor irritant, that will be a fundamental limitation on our international competitiveness as an economic entity. So, in a whole range of areas we have had a busy 18 months, and no more so than in some of the more direct areas that are related to this group.
One of the things that Parliament asked us to do was to execute a number of significant responsibilities in relation to improving access to communication services for disabled people.
In fact, I think the first ever public speech I made as Chief Executive of OFCOM was to a group whereby I indicated that we would create a standing advisory committee to advise us on the issues relevant to older and disabled people. Parliament subsequently decided to turn that into a statutory requirement, not one that in my view we ever needed, and if I am being candid, not one we wanted. For the simple reason that when you turn something into a statutory requirement, it creates a whole layer which sometimes gets in the way of the driving purpose, but I can understand the motivation that wanted people to make that a statutory requirement and we have created that committee under the leadership of Mike Whitlam, who some of you indeed many of you will know. And that group is up and running, meets regularly, has a broad cross section of the interest that it represents sitting round that table. I would say that it is an effective group, my definition of effective being it takes its responsibilities seriously, and it comes at the issues with an open mind and an interested mind in trying to understand how you balance the various responsibilities and particularly for us the statutory responsibilities that are sometimes in conflict with each other.
Going to the specifics, we made some proposals last year in relation to 2 areas that will be interested, one is universal service in telecommunications and the other is in increasing the number of programmes on broadcast services that includes subtitling, signing and audio description. Let me take each of those in order.
The universal service order is a requirement sprung out of the original process of privatisation to require the main incumbent providers which are British Telecom Plc, and Kingston communications in the Hull area, to do a number of things to ensure the necessary provision of access to basic telephone services. One of the obligations is that these companies are required to fund and operate the text relay services. There are many other obligations round public phone boxes and other things, but they are required to operate text relay services and ensure provision to deaf and hard of hearing users. As well as this, all other Telecoms, including the mobile providers, although they are in various stages of development, are required to buy in access to the relay service so that deaf and hard of hearing customers are not prevented from operating a free choice in the market. That cost for BT, to take them as an example, is currently about 10 million pounds a year for the call centre, with relay operators who translate for voice to text and vice versa. The estimated number of regular users of this service is 30,000 users, making about 40,000 calls a week. This number might seem relatively small, or small relative to the 450,000 or so severely or profoundly deaf people in the country who cannot hear well enough to use a telephone in a normal way. But our research, I will be interested in the QA and to see the feedback, indicates that this is a valued service, both by those who use it and indeed the fact of its existence by those who don't. Many people have said not least I have to say the incumbent fixed line operators that given the rise and rise of these things, that the obligations on the mobile operators are ever more important. The mobile operators have faced some challenges in ensuring their deaf and hard of hearing customers can access the relay system. It is more complicated, particularly for the third generation operators, because the text relay technology is more complex, but they are on their way to providing a higher level of full access to the relay service.
And the problems have largely been software related as the current relay service relies on what is essentially teleprinter technology which is a low bit rate and that isn't easily interoperable between the currently deployed technologies. But given not least that this textphone service is a necessary for accessing the emergency services, so you have a kind of in extremis responsibility, we have taken the view that services should not be launched simply to satisfy regulatory deadline unless they work. It seems to us satisfying a deadline but possibly not working is a purist obligation; we would much rather ensure we work with the operators to ensure the operators comply with obligations while also ensuring the deaf and hard of hearing community is kept up to date with progress.
Those are all the things I want to say on that. I want to talk about video relay services which already exist in the USA and Sweden. It involves videoing to an interpreter who relays the message in speech to a hearing person. The RNID launched a system last month and we recognise the strength of the argument in favour but we feel we need a better understanding of the practicalities of operating the service and have proposed a feasibility study. We think we said there are 3 areas that need looking at in more detail: The potential take up, bearing in mind the estimated user base, what the technological infrastructure should be, and the cost of such a service and who pays. I think the service proposed by the RNID will cost about 7 pounds a minute, which is expensive.
I also think it should cause regulators and indeed interest groups and lobbyists to reflect that the greatest improvements in communications for people with hearing loss over the last decade have not come about through regulated universal service provisions but rather through the dynamism of technology and market forces. The last few years have seen an explosive growth in a phenomenon called text base services, SMS, E mail and instant messaging. None of these were specifically aimed at deaf and hard of hearing people, but all have been adopted with some alacrity by the deaf community who of course are understandably alive to services and innovations that are relevant and useful to them.
And the popularity of these new forms of communication was indicated by a piece of research done by City University last year, the text communication survey, which revealed in a hypothetical case of users being restricted to one form of text communication only, being forced to make an artificial choice, 35 per cent prefer SMS and 32 per cent preferred E mail communication.
Of course, part of their appeal, I think, is that they are mainstream services and therefore not only are they more available, more accessible and lower cost, but also the user feels as though there isn't a kind of stigma associated with using them. They are part of the mainstream wider community.
Moving from telecoms to broadcasting. We issued a draft consultation on TV access service codes in December 2003, so pretty much as we took over our responsibility, and this generated an enormous amount of interest from the deaf community, I remember being in a room not far from here and being gently lambasted by Lord Ashley, which is an experience and a half for those who haven't had it! And we made a number of recommendations in an attempt to lay out some options against the statutory obligations in this area that were made on us by Parliament. And the code that we were ultimately looking to produce was aimed to form part of the government's aim to broaden access to cultural resources for the deaf and disabled community.
And the adjustment of the obligations of the code to include cable and satellite broadcasters for the first time as opposed to terrestrial broadcasters we judged to be appropriate because of where the market was. The traditional broadcasters find themselves losing audience to the newer channels. Not long after the first consultation, we passed another major milestone which was total viewing figures for digital and satellite channels exceeded those for any single terrestrial station, which is quite remarkable, we passed 2 remarkable landmarks, that one, the viewing of the digital stations and second subscription income exceeded advertising income in the broadcasting market. More people paid to buy a TV service than advertisers invested in advertising. Quite a seismic combination of changes in the market that many people feel is the same as it has ever been.
There were a number of specifics handed down by the Communications Act to OFCOM and then a number of things open to interpretation. I think it would be safe to say we were on safe ground on the specifics, and we were on arguable ground on the things open to interpretation. The specifics handed down were that aside from programmes excluded by OFCOM for reasons of disproportionate cost, lower viewer ratings, subtitling would be required on at least 80 per cent of programmes on commercial stations and 90 per cent of the cases of channels 3, 4 and 5, the terrestrial stations. These are all to come into effect by the tenth anniversary of the application of the code, 10 years on, and to the relevant digital channels and earlier for terrestrial channels who have already begun to provide the access services. There was an interim target for each service of 60 per cent subtitling programmes by the end of year 5, so you had a kind of upwards glide path if you like to get to medium term position and a longterm position.
During our consultation a number of groups, many of whom are represented in the room today, very ably raised a number of concerns about some of the proposals in our draft code. For example, following advice that we have received initially, we believed and had been informed there was a technical barrier to the subtitling of live discussion programmes, including parliamentary proceedings. We were then immediately inundated with calls, not least from the RNID and others, pointing out this was somewhere between wrong and rubbish And it was perfectly plausible and a well established practice to subtitle such live programmes. We accepted we were wrong and put it right in the final code. And quite right too!
Another concern was the desire to see the growing annual targets for access service. There was a lot of discussion and debate, indeed I had personally with people who maintained that this had not been the spirit of the parliamentary debate and not been the intent of the discussion and that the only reason why the 5 and 10 year date had been put in rather than a specific date was because they expected OFCOM to set higher targets not a lower level.
Indeed, going back to Mike Whitlam's advisory committee, our own advisory committee suggested there should be targets for the satellite channels new to providing access services but the existing targets for the 5 named channels should remain.
I have to say we took quite a lot of time on this, because we got quite substantial views from others that this was disproportionate and that actually it would create a regulatory burden of measurement and accountability and begged the question of what will you do if someone doesn't? What if they do it to within one per cent of the target? Is that acceptable? Probably. What about 10 per cent of the target, maybe not so much. What about 20 per cent of the target? You get into what I would call regulatory reputation questions. There is no point in having targets if you are not going to enforce them. And if the enforcement of those targets ends up being counter productive because it creates an atmosphere of negativity around an obligation, is that a good thing? In the final analysis we took on board the view expressed and we ended up with a final programme that produced targets for years 1, the kind that would get everyone going and then for years 3, 5, 7 and 10 for the 70 channels that fell under our qualifying description. To put that into context, the 70 channels represent about 95 per cent of peak time viewing. And I believe that that is a good outcome, I think that was a productive consultation, we laid out some options, a number of people put forward a variety of views, and we ended up weighing the position and I hope we ended up in a relatively sensible place.
What will it mean? It will mean as of this month we will begin to witness a substantial increase in subtitling on British television. If you are in the subtitling business, which not many people are, it is a good business to be in. I think it is worth pointing out that there are some satellite channels who already provide subtitling way in access of their current obligations, and as we constantly say, these are floor, not ceiling targets. There will be teething problems because there are always are but our intention is to work with broadcasters and with disability organisations to ensure that if people are not delivering we can identify them quickly and find out what the problem is before we get into a punitive regime of punishment. I don't think that was the parliamentary intent. I think it was constructive engagement, rather than naming and shaming. We will require quarterly reports initially so we are on the case, so we are monitoring it regularly and the first will be published in spring, so we will do this in a way that will allow people to keep both us and the broadcasters honest.
I think the priority now is to create awareness of the access services amongst potential users and in addition to the targets we have also started working with broadcasters to start encouraging them to extend their publicity of there services, because I think it needs to be done, it needs to be known it is being done as well.
And I think several broadcasters have already begun to give more prominence to access services than they did in the past and feedback on that in a constructive way will be useful.
Slightly broadening that subject into the digital switchover question, in the run up to digital switchover, which will be a marathon rather than a sprint so you don't need to panic, but it is a marathon that will finish not that far away, so it is worth focusing your minds on it, we are concerned that deaf and hard of hearing consumers are not left behind and there are a whole range of issues that need attention.
Our consumer panel, the independent consumer panel set up by Parliament has recommended to government that a switch code be created to manage the switch over process that should work with organisations in daily contact with people who may struggle with switch over and really it is those excluded groups who are in danger of finding themselves in most danger of exclusion, and compound exclusion and a lot of that boils down to practical advice and help, and there are a whole range of suggestions that we in our consumer panel have made already around that area.
We are also asking the EPG providers to make available information about how to switch subtitling and signing on and off, for reasons obvious to this group not least because EPGs are the common root of management and audiences need to get more comfortable with how to use the various options available and we will announce shortly a requirement on EPG providers that provide standard abbreviations to make it easy to understand which do come with subtitle services and which don't. Again there is a little bit of scene setting. The other listings providers will follow suit and move some of the confusion of having different signifiers for each access. We can't mandate that, we don't have a parliamentary or statutory authority but we can lead and I think we can do it in a useful way.
When we published the code on access services at the end of 2004, we said we would review the code within 18 to 24 months and we plan to start the preparatory work on that reasonably shortly with a view to consulting on possible modifications later in this year and finalising changes by the middle point of next. This is so the changes can be brought into effect in the beginning of 2007, and some of you will know we have already been in touch with people, certain groups to see whether they wish to help.
I hope I have covered some points of specific interest as well as points of general interest. If I'm allowed a final general point, a quote which I make to every audience that is willing to listen to me: "making predictions is a dangerous thing, particularly predictions about the future". We are not future gazers, but we are just about to conclude a review of public service broadcasting, which is a 5 year review, so we don't do another one for 5 years, till 2010. My own personal view is that in 5 years the communication market will be unrecognisable from where it is today. I don't think it will be marginally changed, I think it will be unrecognisable. By then you will have already seen probably half the country lose analogue terrestrial transmission; you will have seen traditional public switch telephone networks either switched off or being switched off; you will have broadband penetration probably north of 10 million homes...
Malcolm Bruce: Can I stop you. We are going to have to go and vote. I don't want to interrupt you, nor stop people questioning. I and my colleagues will leave and will return, but Jonathan will hold the chair while I am gone, so do carry on with what you are saying.
Stephen Carter: Thank you. Third generation mobile telephony will be the accepted norm and indeed other wireless services will be hopefully in vivid and usable form, at an affordable level. What does all that mean? I think it means it is an exciting time. But what I also think it means is like all these things, it is so much easier to put in innovation for groups at the design stage, rather than after the event. Because when you are putting them in after the event, you are grafting them on. So one of the things we tried to do as a communications regulator and I think one of the benefits of having a converged communications regulator as opposed to a series of sectoral regulators is that we can look across the piece, we can signal these things coming far enough in advance to stimulate that debate in a way that will allow some solutions and some agreements to be reached before it becomes either disproportionately expensive or a source of conflict and disagreement.
Beyond that, I hope that has been useful, I'm happy to take any questions.
Jonathan Isaac: Stephen, on behalf of Malcolm, thank you very much. Hopefully our members will be returning very shortly. I am sure there are questions that our guests would like to put to Stephen on the issues that he has raised and perhaps also issues that they have brought to the table themselves. Could I have the first question to Stephen?
Penny Beschizza: I am the chair of Deaf Broadcasting Council. I would like to thank Stephen for your talk. There are a lot of points which he has covered which I was going to talk to, but my main question really is: I'm concerned about the number of deaf viewers and the broadcasters perspective of that. There are 4 to 5 times more people than you would expect using subtitles in the home, in one household you have one deaf person watching subtitles, but also their family will use that service as well.
Stephen Carter: First of all as a personal view, I think as a country, we are becoming more aware, more sophisticated and more focused on a whole range of what you might call social policy issues than historically has been the case. Let's take an area that is not related to my own take employment. I think gender equality in employment has been an issue for quite some time. I wouldn't for a minute say we have made all the issues of sex discrimination go away, but we have made some significant progress and I think it is a live issue, to the point where it is almost, people think about it naturally. Have we done the same with ethnicity in employment? I'm not sure. My view would be not as much. But I would observe that it is becoming more visible. What is my point? My point is I think the same is also coming on some of the issues that we are talking about here today. And some people have criticised us in some areas of what we do, of being too kind of economically liberal, too market orientated. And actually, I generally make no apology for our broad approach. But I would also say that in other areas, we have been very interventionist, and I would say this is an area where we are quite happy to be interventionist, in order to make it more of a real concern. The reason I emphasise that there are some satellite channels that way over deliver is I think there are some shining examples of commercial companies who had no statutory requirement to do anything who far exceeded it. There are some examples of people who don't, so I am not saying all is rosy in the garden.
What does that mean, I think it means that groups like this are useful. I think it means making your voice heard, maybe disproportionately loudly, is a good thing. And I go back to my closing point, which is, where there is a lot of change coming and a lot of technological change, and many of these issues can be relatively easily solved through technology. The issues, for example, text relay provision in 3 G phones is largely an issue of the cost of the interoperable software. That will go down as there are more and more customers, therefore there is an alignment of interest between the broadcasters, or the phone operators, and some of the communities that you talk about. So I don't have a "Here is what we should do tomorrow" answer. But I do think there is a macro context whereby these issues are being given generally more prominence and than in the micro area that we are discussing today, I think generally what I would call the more responsible broadcasters are very alive to not just providing services for the deaf community but providing services for the community that live with the deaf community, which as you say is a much larger number.
Mark Morris: On the issue of the TV access code that has just come in, which now extends to 70 channels, you said the first year is kind of bedding in and it will go up through incremental targets. It will lead to quite significant increases in subtitles without question, but the point is in the first year and for satellite cable channels, it won't increase for another 2 years, there is huge variation, there are some doing a very good job, Sky News is on 30 per cent. What would be useful is why should people know what the code is? It is quite a detailed issue, why can't people when they decide to buy their package, top up TV, or Sky, actually find out what each channel is actually doing? The real output of subtitling. The same way you can buy a fridge, why can't you find out, perhaps even at the shop, what they are doing and that will be consumer information, it will allow people to buy a package that suits them and hopefully will encourage broadcasters to actually exceed what is being regulated. But I think that kind of consumer information will be useful and will only encourage good practice. I would stress it is a service, deafblind people, anyone even with speech impairment, I think it is a broad service, shouldn't be overlooked, and you quoted figures. What is a shame is that actually a lot of people didn't know about the service, don't know about the service even now and that is the issue that is partly to do with marketing and information over the last few years I wouldn't say solely due to the technology, a lot of people are using it properly, they knew about it and there are reasons why that is the case, but I wanted to make those comments as well.
Stephen Carter: By the way I also think subtitling is jolly helpful to many viewers and people who don't have a hearing issue, anyway... in our statement we will require the broadcasters to make it clear what is provided. The actual output. So people will be able to find out.
Annabel Ewing: I have a brief question which is simply looking at the code and looking at the future, and I wonder how the code is to be monitored, and what resources there are available to OFCOM to monitor properly the implementation of the code and indeed if there are breaches, what sanctions are available to OFCOM and what sanctions are OFCOM likely to use to ensure compliance with this code?
Stephen Carter: This is year one, and actually the way in which the targets work for some people it won't bite in a meaningful sense till year 2. We will publish a report quarterly, on progress, so you will see the first report in spring. Within OFCOM it falls within our content group, Peter is here who many of you know, he is the executive responsible for that and amongst many other things. Do we have the necessary level of resource? Well I would say up to a point, my Lord, and this was at the heart of the debate we had around the consultation. Unless you are willing to hire hundreds of regulators, there is a limit to how enforcement or monitoring can work, so to a degree what you are always seeking is some degree of mutuality in the process, and that is not a bad thing, that doesn't mean it is a sort of muddy compromise.
I think if you were to ask the broadcasting community they would say "We have probably gone further than they would have liked us to have gone". If you ask some people here they would say we haven't gone as far as they would like us to have gone. What is the process of encouragement and sanction? Well first of all it will be "What is the problem? How can we help facilitate, what can we transfer in terms of learning and knowledge that we have gained from other parties? There is an ultimate sanction, but that is a nuclear option: withdrawal of licence, but in my experience, naming and shaming is a powerful thing. And that is of course why people want things in codes that people have to deliver, because without those obligations you can't name and shame.
What is our confidence level on this one by comparison to many of the other areas we are working? I'm reasonably confident. I think there is a general change, maybe not change but progression amongst the broadcasting community to want to do more. I don't mean to be seen to do more, I mean to want to do more: And it is no coincidence that the bigger operators naturally do it anyway. It is not because they have more money.
Malcolm Bruce: You said in your opening remarks how much that technology has delivered without a code, in other words most of the innovations that help deaf and hard of hearing people have happened because of technology in the market and you indicated that the next 5 or 10 years there will be a lot more of that. You must ensure that when the market develops something, it reaches everybody as fast as possible. And I suppose there are 2 things there: Are you confident, given the start that you had, that you can achieve the expectations? And how did you get, how did you get it so wrong? It is serious, because you may say well we got off to a bad start and now we have learned, but to make something as fundamentally wrong. I think the first live subtitling was Blue Peter, or one of the first, about 15 years ago, and in fact it was such a good idea that someone said why not subtitle the news? And they promptly stole the subtitlers from Blue Peter to service the news and we had a great parliamentary campaign to get Blue Peter reinstated. It isn't something that has happened in the last year or 2 as the technology has developed so how can we be confident that you are close enough to the ground to actually be sure of technology and that you will act on our behalf to accelerate its delivery where the market doesn't.
Lady Howe: There is a feeling that the quality of subtitling may be deteriorating and it would be interesting to hear about that. But on the point about why, how did you get it wrong and so on, you obviously had a great deal to think about at that time. But it does underline the problem if you have a lot of different competing interests within OFCOM, and is it the case, do you think that to satisfy the wider public that what you have done and how you have used your resources is looked at, looked over as it were by another body or another group of independent people? Because I'm sure in time there will be a lot of complaints about this. Have you been too much on the economic side and not quite enough on the content side and so on? Or do you think also because everything is rightly being left to self regulation, you won't get the same range of complaints and depth of complaints that perhaps the other bodies had in the past.
Stephen Carter: The quality issue I will come back to. Let me try and answer the other questions: I often observe that policy makers and parliamentarians, when something comes along reach for universal provision too early. And often, the natural social policy desire to have universal provision comes at a cost and that cost is the necessary level of competition and innovation. And there is always a balance to be struck between those 2. I'm not a competition purist. I don't think we should sacrifice the social policy issues on the alter of competition theory. I'm too much of a realist for that. But I think there is a balance to be struck between getting those 2 things right. About how often by creating the right environment for innovation investment, speculation, entrepreneurism and development, what comes out of that is something that has far greater reach than anything that a group of policy makers, regulators or parliamentarians could invent based on available technology today. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it you should always think about it twice about what the costs are and that is what regulatory impact assessment are rightly designed to do.
To your specific point, Elspeth, we can have a debate about how we allocate resources within OFCOM and I never ran any of the previous regulators so I can't comment, I can't comment through experience but I can comment through judgement. I think one of the great benefits of OFCOM is we have scale. Which none of the other regulators had. We have research scale, we have a resource scale, we have a head count scale, we have an institutional scale, that numbers of the other regulators had. The public response to the recent Gerry Springer programme was, I think, 9 times the level of public engagement on any broadcast issue in the history of broadcasting. Did we fall over as a consequence? Did we fail to answer the phones, did we fail to deal with E mail traffic? None of those things. Now, does that mean that I am confident we have the necessary level of resources in every place? Are there value judgments that have been made about whether or not they should be in economic areas or content areas and are they all right? Probably not. I would though slightly contest the view that they can all be separated into buckets, because actually there is an enormous degree of overlap and of course that was the thinking behind creating a converged regulator and many of the historic so called content regulatory issues are increasingly becoming economic content issues as well as policy content issues, and that again I think it one of the benefits of having a converged regulator.
Having said that, I am the first to admit that there are things that we do which frankly quite easily could be done by other people. As to having a further body, scrutinising us, if I had more governance to deal with than I have currently got I would be spending less time doing practical things like ensuring subtitles are being delivered. We have a board, a content board, a consumer panel, 2 statutory advisory committees, we are audited by the NAO, we appear in front of parliamentary accounts committee, in front of 2 standing committees of the lower house and one of the upper house. We are not short of public scrutiny, I would observe. Whether or not that public scrutiny is doing its job is a different matter, I'm not sure we need to invent another one.
Peter Bourton: On scale and quality, in position to the scale OFCOM brings, we have resources. About a million or so people use subtitling who have not been slow in the past to let regulators know whether there are problems. We work closely with the disability organisations to identify problems if they arise: We are going to review standards that apply to subtitling for some years now, coincident with the review of the code that Stephen referred to, with the aim of completing that review in time to implement any changes from the beginning of 2007. We will look at things like speed, fonts, backgrounds, accuracy, all of those issues as part of that review.
Stephen Carter: Can I answer why did we get it so wrong? I don't think it is inaccurate, you will tell me if it is, but if you say to organisations, public or private, in 3 years time we are going to close you down what happens is they spend quite a lot of time wondering and worrying about what their jobs are going to be. They spend not as much time doing forward looking stuff or indeed the stuff they have to do. So we had a lot of backlog of work to catch up with. Parliament then also gave us a wealth of things to get done at speed, and actually if you analyse that work flow, we only made 2 really important errors this is one of them and the other was in our statement on the regulation of the newspaper market, where we made a substantive error on the way which we were due to relate with the DTI and the press complaints commission. Both of those were mistakes that shouldn't have happened, but they were 2 out of literally hundreds of pieces of activity that we had been doing at speed in a relatively short period of time, during the hand over. It is not an excuse, but it is a reason.
Christopher Jones: We have talked about the broadcasting of subtitles and I'm interested specifically within the relay service. Earlier you said you would like to encourage competition within this field and innovation. I don't know if you are aware, but within the UK, there is a monopoly within the relay system. The UK really hasn't been innovative within that field. If I give you an example: I could call my relatives in the States and have a conversation with them quicker than I could call my relatives in the UK. The other point is very often we are focusing on text based relay services. There is a need for that, I'm not saying there isn't, but the unfortunate thing with that is that it is a very slow form of communication. There are other forms of relay services which brings the speed up to realtime communication. These are to do with voice recognition services, etcetera and at the moment the UK doesn't have any of that and I would like to ask whether OFCOM has any views on whether they are going to be carrying on with how the services are at the moment, or whether they are going to be opening up the field to competition and to actively encourage innovative new companies and technology.
Stephen Carter: I agree. And the reason why the US market is more diverse is because the structure of provision in the US is fundamentally different. Voice over broadband I think could be a big part of that. And the way in which voice recognition services work in IP protocols versus the way in which traditional switch based telephone networks use relay make it a much less financially onerous responsibility. To be honest, we are never going to solve your question till you solve the bigger question, I don't mean by bigger as in more important, but just the bigger question about how do you get a much more sustainable competition in telecom services generally, because that is actually the root cause of the lack of competitive supply in relay services and there are many other samples. That is why we are doing the strategic review of the telecoms market. But we should continue a dialogue in writing on the other questions, because it a fascinating subject.
Malcolm Bruce: Can I say thank you Stephen for coming along. Apologies for the interruption, but that is the way it is here. I think it has been an interesting meeting and I hope we can continue the conversation. Those of my colleagues here, I want to thank them and thank you for coming. The nature of this group is that our guests are just as important if not more important than the parliamentarians and I hope you will continue to support us and interact. The next meeting will be with Maria Eagle but we have to organise a date.
The meeting ended at 5.10pm