This autumn, a white paper will cover both broadcasting and telecommunications. David Wood and Katy Elliott look at the road ahead to new 'communications' legislation.
Televisions and computers aren't the only things set for convergence.

When it comes to designing a new regulatory framework for the communications industry even the twin behemoths of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) are getting together.

Culture secretary Chris Smith and trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers went so far as to give identical answers on the future of broadcasting and telecoms in the Commons last week.

Both parroted that the autumn would see a new white paper to encompass broadcasting and telecoms.

'The work will be taken forward by a joint DTI/DCMS team to ensure a coherent and consistent approach to the regulation of the converging communications industries,' said Smith and Byers. 'The white paper will accordingly be broad in scope - covering both infrastructure and content issues.'

So what does all this mean? Broadly speaking the government has two aims.

The first is to make UKTV plc a tad more competitive - a world leading communications provider, no less - by relaxing regulation of both ownership and content.

But in transforming the UK industry into kick-arse commercial operators, both government departments are keen to ensure the consumer doesn't lose out as broadcasters eagerly water down their public service content.

'For the foreseeable future there will be continuing need for the public service broadcasters (PSB) - the BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and S4C - to continue to provide a comprehensive programme mix,' said the DTI/DCMS's exploratory paper, Regulating Communications: The Way Ahead - published last year.

In reality public service requirements will probably be two-tier: nakedly commercial operators such as ITV will see ITC-style programme requirements relaxed while, as a quid pro quo for a digital licence fee hike, the BBC will be expected to set the public service plimsoll line.

Redefining the role of public service broadcasting will be another preoccupation of the white paper. Some suggest that the BBC's Charter Renewal - currently set for 2006 - may be brought forward, as the Charter will set the tone for the white paper's PSB policy.

The most dramatic relaxations will almost certainly be in media ownership.

Sweeping changes are anticipated to attempt to keep the UK up with the sometimes alarming pace of change in global media. In the US, AOL said it would merge with Time Warner and the pair moved to swallow up EMI in the space of just a few weeks.

The question for the UK is whether ITV will jump the gun and have found a way to consolidate by the time the Broadcasting Bill is published during the next parliament. Remember Sky and BSB had their highly irregular merger waved through by Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

Although the regulatory framework remains hazy, one thing seems certain.

Having mooted the idea of an 'evolutionary approach' last year (with the advantage that vague regulation can be easily rolled back as competition hots up), the consensus at the DTI and DCMS now seems to be that a firm line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere.

Where that line comes depends more than ever on the rest of Europe. Another aim of the white paper will be to ensure that UK regulations dovetail with the broad thrust of European Commission frameworks for communications (Broadcast, 19.11.99).

A single national regulator is an approach favoured in Europe. According to Regulating Communications, the most popular UK option was for a single content regulator and a single economic regulator to replace the existing myriad bodies with overlapping responsibilities.

Perhaps the most radical possibility is the regulation of telecoms and TV under one roof. Not that it would stop Whitehall's traditional inter-departmental posturing.

WHITE PAPER TO TACKLE ...

- Pace and direction of change in communications markets- Economic regulation of communications services (going beyond telecoms and broadcasting to include, for example, cross media ownership rules affecting other media)- Content regulation- The role and regulation of public service broadcasters- Spectrum management- The implications for the structure of regulation- The implications of - and for - policy at EU level- Legislative proposals with timetableOUTSTANDING BUSINESS ...

- Telewest takeover of Flextech: with Competition Commission- NTL takeover of Cable & Wireless' domestic arm: ditto- United/Carlton merger: DTI expected to refer to Competition Commission- Granada bid for Carlton or United: a decision on whether to refer to Competition Commission due by 28 February- Vivendi's BSkyB stake: with Competition Commission- Creative Industries Task Force Inquiry into TV Exports: DCMS yet to respond to report's 11 key recommendations- SMG takeover of Ginger: decision on whether to refer to Competition Commission due by 10 FebruaryFROM WHITE PAPER TO BILL ...

- White paper proposed for second half of the year- First reading. Day named for second reading. Bill printed- Second reading by the whole house without debate- 'Money resolutions' authorise parts of Bill involving significant charge on government funds and 'ways and means resolutions' authorise taxes or other charges- Committee stage - clause by clause consideration- 'Report' stage - detailed review of amended Bill by all members.

Further amendments may be voted on- Third reading. No major amendments allowed at this stage- Bill to Lords - the process broadly similar to the Commons- Commons may agree Lords' amendments or ask the Lords to reconsider.

Bill set for first session of next parliament.