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History of Telecoms Regulation in UK

Telecoms regulation in the UK began in 1901 with the licencing of private telephone companies, and has gone through nationalisation, privatisation, regulated monopoly and duopoly, convergence with broadcasting and with the Internet, and alignment with EU directives. It continues to adapt as our use of communications changes...


Telecoms regulation in the UK began in 1901 when the private telephone operator National Telephone Company (NTC) was informed its licence to operate would not be renewed after expiry in 1912. Instead NTC was brought under GPO control and a single nationalised telephone service was formed.

Radio spectrum was first regulated by the Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1904, with the regulation carried out by the Postmaster General. Transmitters and receivers were both licensed, and the money was used eventually to fund the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) from 1923 onwards.

The Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 revised and improved the flexibility of radio spectrum licensing.

The telecommunications Act 1984 privatised BT, removed BTís monopoly in the provision of telecommunications services (with the introduction of Mercury Communications), and established an independent regulator, Oftel. The Cable and Broadcasting Act in the same year set up the Cable Authority to regulate and promote Cable Television in franchise areas. Two licensed operators could from this point on provide competing telecoms services, BT and C&W.

In 1991 the existing duopoly in telecoms services was ended and licensing of multiple service providers permitted for domestic service only. International telecommunications remained within the duopoly framework.

In 1996 the international duopoly was ended, and other operators were free to offer international services within the UK.

In 1998 the European Union issued framework directives to encourage the market in competitive telecommunications services across Europe. This effectively ended monopoly provision in all EU countries.

In 1998, the Wireless Telegraphy Act allowed radio spectrum to be sold, and paved the way for subsequent auctions of spectrum for 3G mobile licences.

In 2003 new European directives removed the need for telecommunication service providers to be licensed by national regulators, and generally simplified regulation. In the UK, several existing regulators were merged to form Ofcom.

Most recently Ofcom has begun to withdraw from regulation in markets where strong competition has been established, most notably from DSL provision in certain regions of the UK.

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