Ofcom to BT: Status quo is not an option

Ofcom headquarters in south London Image copyright PA

It's a very powerful force in determining the future shape of communications in the UK, but how many people know anything about Ofcom?

The regulator is very familiar to the businesses which compete in the UK's communications markets, less so to consumers. But its new boss would like to change that.

Sharon White, who is soon to make a momentous decision about competition in broadband, believes Ofcom needs to do more to show consumers that is on their side as they battle through the complexity of choosing services which are now vital to their working and social lives.

Today's launch of a home wifi checker app is one way the regulator wants to show that it is helping consumers - though whether being told to turn their router on and off again or move it away from the fairy-lights will really impress them is open to question.

Far more serious for our broadband future is Ofcom's decision on whether BT's Openreach division should be split off from the rest of the company. Rival suppliers and some consumer groups argue that is the only way of getting the UK's broadband strategy back on track, while BT insists it would harm, not help, its investment programme.

Ms White, a high-flying Treasury civil servant before she arrived at Ofcom, is used to making these kind of decisions, though not under quite the same spotlight. When I interviewed her she told me that Ofcom was still examining all options - but suggested that she was minded to act rather than let things carry on as before:

" I think there will be change," she tells me. "We're looking at a number of options, but I think it is very unlikely we will conclude that the status quo which has worked over the last 10 years is where we are likely to be over the next decade."

Image caption Sharon White, Ofcom's CEO

It is also evident that she has been listening to some of the criticism of BT - she talks about issues of access and availability of broadband and quality of service: "It's taking a bit too long for repairs to be made, for connections to be linked in after people have requested those."

She promises that Ofcom will press BT and its rivals on behalf of consumers on issues such as broadband advertising and the ability to switch providers.

Overall, the regulator thinks the UK is doing pretty well in rolling out superfast broadband compared with other European countries. But it points to two groups that are losing out - rural homes and small businesses. The most startling figure in its Connected Nations report is that half of all small firms in areas like business parks cannot even get speeds of 10Mbps, the bare minimum recently promised to everyone by the government by 2020.

In the rush to wire up residential streets, it seems the business parks have been bypassed. Small firms ask what incentive there is for BT to link them up en masse, when it is far more lucrative to get individual businesses to sign up for a leased line.

Now, it is still far from certain that Ofcom's Sharon White will recommend that Openreach is split off - and the digital minister Ed Vaizey has already indicated that the government is sceptical about such radical action. But BT knows that it is now under the microscope of a regulator determined to prove that it is the consumer's friend.