Telecommunications Law

Jane Lambert

4 March 2011

The term “telecommunications law” refers to a bundle of laws that regulate access to the internet, broadcasting, telephony and telegraphy, use of the radio spectrum and satellite orbits.   The subject matter of such regulation includes competition, consumer protection, standards and regulation of content.


For many years telecommunications were a state monopoly in the UK.   In so far as anyone referred to telecommunications law at all, it was largely a matter of public law. It touched individual citizens only peripherally in such matters as television licences and wayleaves for telephone lines.  When television was opened up to the private sector the Independent Television Authority was established by the Television Act 1954. Its name was changed to the Independent Broadcasting Authority and its mandate extended to independent local radio by the Sound Broadcasting Act 1972. As in most other countries, telephony and telegraphy services together with the post were supplied by a government department headed by the Postmaster General until the Post Office was established as a public corporation by the Post Office Act 1969.  Telecommunications and postal services were divided into separate corporations by The British Telecommunications Act 1981.  The Telecommunications Act 1984 prepared the way for privatization of British Telecom and competition in telecommunications by establishing an Office of Telecommunications (“Oftel”) and transferring the assets of British Telecom to a new public limited company. Oftel regulated the telecommunications market by a system of licensing. Operating a telecommunications system in the UK without a licence from Oftel was a criminal offence.

The Directives

In the two decades that followed the Telecommunications Act 1984 there were rapid advances in all communications technologies particularly the internet and mobile phones the demand for which was explosive. In response to those phenomena, the Council of Ministers adopted the following directives:

These directives required member states to adopt a common system of regulation for the telecommunications industries, the relaxation of restrictions on the supply of services and common rules on interconnection, universal service and consumer protection.

Competition Law

The development of the European single market and the accession of new members from Eastern Europe necessitated an overhaul of EU competition law which involved the transfer of enforcement of EU competition law from the Commission to the member states.  In anticipation of those developments Parliament enacted the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Act 2002 (see the Competition Law page).

Communications Act 2003

The Communications Act 2003 implements the communications directives and largely codifies telecommunications law. It established the Office of Communications (Ofcom) as the national regulator and transferred to it the functions previously carried out by Oftel and the broadcasting regulators. The Act abolished the licensing regime previously operated by Oftel and replaced it with a scheme by which anyone can supply voice and data services subject to compliance with the General Conditions of Entitlement for the time being. Ofcom continues to license use of the radio spectrum to broadcasters and radiocommunications users.   Ofcom enforces EU and national competition law in the telecommunications industry and also safeguards the rights of consumers.

For further information on communications law, contact Jane Lambert.