Insights Ofcom’s Plan of work 2024/25: Making communications work for everyone

As the first quarter of 2024 draws to a conclusion, Ofcom has unveiled its Plan of Work for 2024/25, setting out its strategic focus for the forthcoming financial year.

Emphasising the indispensability of the sectors under its remit —broadcasting, postal services, telecommunications, spectrum management, and online platforms—in the daily lives of individuals, encompassing home, work, and educational spheres, Ofcom acknowledges the continuing evolution within these domains. Amidst technological advancements, market changes, and shifts in consumer behaviour, the regulatory body underscores its commitment to ensuring effective communication infrastructure for all.

Acknowledging their statutory duties and functions, including their primary duty to further the interests of citizens and consumers in relation to communications matters, where appropriate by promoting competition (see paragraph 2.1- 2.2), Ofcom’s Plan of Work is centred around the following four evidence-based priority outcomes:

  • Internet we can rely on – ensuring fast, reliable and affordable connections and services for everyone, everywhere;
  • Media we trust and value – supporting a wide range of media to deliver high-quality content, and protecting audiences while making sure freedom of expression is safeguarded;
  • We live a safer life online – implementing the new online safety regime so that platforms are safer for their users; and
  • Enabling wireless services in the wider economy – ensuring efficient use of spectrum and supporting growth across the economy.

Their Plan also takes into consideration the UK Government’s Statement of Strategic Priorities (SSP) for telecommunications, the management of radio spectrum and postal services in exercising their regulatory functions relating to those matters, by having regard to:

  • How they contribute to the SSP of world-class digital infrastructure – this will include starting their work to re-assess the fixed telecoms market and their continued support for investment in new technologies;
  • How they can further the interests of telecoms consumers;
  • Ensuring secure and resilient telecoms infrastructure – including by consulting on revised guidance on the resilience of networks and services, while under the Telecoms Security Act, monitoring communication providers’ compliance with the new security framework.

Focusing on Ofcom’s communications-focused priorities of “Internet we can rely on” and “Enabling wireless services in the wider economy”, we’ve set out below the key projects and programmes that Ofcom has identified in its Plan of Work to help achieve these:

Internet we can rely on: fast and reliable connections and services for everyone, everywhere  

  • Telecoms Access Review – acknowledging that the current regulatory framework that Ofcom set in 2021 ends in March 2026, Ofcom is planning to start their next review to set the regulatory framework from April 2026 to March 2031 and publish their main consultation by Q4 2024. This will cover the markets for physical infrastructure access, wholesale local access, leased line access and other relevant markets, while assessing whether the 2021 framework that was put in place to promote network investment and competition remains appropriate.
  • Telecoms Access Review (in Hull): The current, separate regulatory framework that applies in the Hull Area ends in October 2026. Ofcom will start their review of fixed telecoms markets which will set the regulatory framework from November 2026 to October 2031.
  • Wholesale Voice Review: Ofcom will begin work that will enable the future review of the wholesale voice termination markets for the April 2026 to March 2031 period. They will also monitor the market for wholesale SMS termination and its impact on the retail business messaging market and will consult in 2024/25 if the monitoring indicates it to be appropriate.
  • Inflation-linked in-contract price rises: Having consulted on banning telecoms providers from providing for either inflation-linked price rises or price rises that are set out in percentage terms in contracts, Ofcom has confirmed that they will publish their final decision in spring 2024.
  • Security and resilience: continued monitoring of communication providers’ compliance with the new security framework, using powers introduced by the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021. Under their Network and Information Systems (“NIS”) Regulations responsibilities, Ofcom will continue to make sure operators of essential services are managing security risks and plan to engage with industry to carry out their threat intelligence-led penetration testing scheme (“TBEST”) on telecoms and digital infrastructure. Ofcom plans to continue to engage with vendors to ensure they maintain a broader understanding of the evolving telecoms ecosystem. In addition, Ofcom plan to consult on possible interventions to tackle the misuse of ‘Global Titles’ numbers, which are used for signalling between mobile networks.

The above areas of focus do not take into account Ofcom’s ongoing programmes for this priority, which will include their strategic review of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in telecoms and ensuring that the new One Touch Switch programme is running well for consumers once launched in September 2024 (see here for more info on the revised One Touch Switch planned go-live date and here for details of Ofcom’s enforcement programme due to its delay).

Enabling wider services in the wider economy: ensuring efficient use of spectrum and supporting growth across the economy

With wireless communication playing an increasingly significant role across many sectors of the economy and supporting the digitalisation of many sectors, Ofcom is seeking to ensure that spectrum is available to enable the communications industry to meet anticipated growth and innovation in consumer mobile and wireless services while meeting the needs to key sectors such as utilities, manufacturing, transport etc.  Other key outcomes identified include:

  • Ensuring additional users are accommodated through sustained improvements in efficiency of spectrum use;
  • UK interests are represented effectively in international negotiations on spectrum allocation and use; and
  • Operational execution ensures spectrum is available and harmful interference mitigated through business-as-usual activities (licensing, planning, assurance and compliance).

Their work programme to support this key area is focused on:

  • Supporting network evolution and convergence: while preparing to award spectrum in the 26GHz and 40GHz mmWave bands for mobile use, Ofcom state this will not commence the auction process until the Competition and Markets Authority has taken its decision on the proposed merger between Vodafone UK and Three UK; separately, they will make Shared Access licences available in the 26GHZ band and intend to consult on the award of spectrum at 1.4GHz for mobile use.
  • Accelerating innovation in spectrum sharing: Ofcom has, through its review of the shared access framework, identified areas that will likely improve access to this spectrum for a wider range of users. They will further develop their work to explore innovative sharing and coexistence approaches to spectrum authorisation across different bands (for example in the Hybrid Sharing in the Upper 6GHz band), exploiting spectrum sandbox partnerships with industry and academia as appropriate.
  • Updating and reviewing the spectrum management framework: Ofcom states that its work takes account of international, technology and market developments to enable timely and efficient access to spectrum by ensuring their spectrum management framework is fit for purpose for an increasing range of wireless services and business models. Through the continued delivery of their space strategy, Ofcom will support innovative satellite communication to support UK consumers and businesses. They note that as sectors evolve, they will need to look at the impact of changing demand from specific sectors or services, with specific plans to review fixed links and mobile satellite services including satellite direct-to-device.

In addition to the above areas of focused activity, Ofcom will continue its ongoing programme of work to optimise spectrum use across the UK, including representing UK interests in international negotiations and agreements on spectrum allocation and use for all spectrum users; through enhancing their operational capabilities to support spectrum users (especially as they continue to move more licensing services online, improve access to spectrum information, and enhance their licensing platform to support regulatory decisions delivering a better and more automated experience). They will also continue to engage in the technical planning of frequencies for licenses that use the same spectrum in different areas of the UK, including for radio and TV broadcasting.

In addition to these key areas of focus impacting the communications sector, Ofcom has also announced its plans to support the UK Government’s framework for AI, as part of their work underpinning the wider work that they regulate, with an update to their strategic approach to AI being published alongside their Plan of Work for 2024/25.

To see the full list of projects and their milestones that Ofcom have planned as part of this year’s Plan of Work, please see the Annex at page 28 to the Plan of Work by clicking here.