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The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched a consultation on delivering the proposed 10Mbps broadband universal service obligation (USO), as set out by prime minister David Cameron in November 2015.
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With broadband connections in use at 78% of UK premises, and 83% of premises able to access a government-defined superfast service as of June 2015, much of the recent debate around the national broadband roll-out has centred on delivering universal fibre-based services to those still left out. The country’s two largest operators, BT and Virgin Media, have both made commitments of their own.
The controversial Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) contracts – designed to address areas not covered by commercial roll-outs – are set to deliver 95% superfast coverage of the UK by December 2017. The contracts include a universal service commitment to ensure speeds of 2Mbps for every home and business in the UK.
The government now wants to add a universal service obligation that would address the 2.4 million properties around the country that cannot access a service faster than 10Mbps. It estimates that even with the combined efforts of commercial operators, and those participating in BDUK, a million will still be left out in December 2017.
With more people now coming to accept that broadband is a service that should be universally available, the government plans to give citizens the right to request an affordable broadband connection, at a 10Mbps minimum speed, up to a reasonable cost threshold.
“This government has a clear digital agenda, and our ambition is for world-class digital connectivity at ultrafast speeds,” said digital economy minister Ed Vaizey in the report preamble.
“As the country continues to take great strides towards ever better connectivity, a broadband USO will help ensure that no-one is left behind – a digital safety net for all.”
A guaranteed 10Mbps service would help those out of work to find jobs, households to cut down on bills, families to keep in touch with friends and relatives, access public services and educate their children, wrote Vaizey.
“The benefits of greater connectivity are shared throughout communities, including by supporting small businesses to get online, compete and grow,” he said.
The government believes that 10Mbps will enable full participation in a digital society, enabling services such as video on demand, internet radio and music streaming, alongside less bandwidth-hungry applications such as accessing government services or online shopping.
The government said it intended to introduce primary legislation giving the secretary of state the explicit power to introduce the 10Mbps USO, and will introduce secondary legislation to set out the scope, including requirements and guidance for the design of the USO, which regulator Ofcom would be responsible for implementing.
It said it did not propose to specify a minimum broadband speed or quality in primary legislation, because the technology was fast-evolving, and any specifications would need to be revised as time goes by – something that it will be easier to do with secondary legislation. It will, however, consider giving the secretary of state the power to require Ofcom to review the USO in future, with a view to updating the minimum speed as things improve.
It said it would commission Ofcom to analyse the key factors that will inform the design of the USO, although it offered no suggestion as to what those factors might be. A report is to be delivered by the end of 2016, at which point a new consultation will commence on the secondary legislation and a regulatory impact assessment will be made.
Business and residential broadband users have been invited to take part in the consultation alongside network operators and ISPs. The process will close to submissions on 18 April 2016.
A broadband USO will be a complex thing to implement. It differs from the existing telephony USO in many ways. For example, whereas a user either has a telephone line or they do not, a broadband connection can be affected by a number of factors, many outside of anybody’s control, and can use a range of different technologies, hence the need to consider carefully how such a policy will be developed.
In the wake of the announcement, Matthew Evans, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), pointed out that the consultation process would have to address a great many questions as to how a USO could be delivered in the UK.
At a recent panel event hosted by the BSG, analyst Rob Kenny of telecoms consultancy Communications Chambers said that the government would have to consider the expense of enforcing a USO as a priority.
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In other European states that have gone down this route, such as Sweden, the minimum speed requirement has been way under 10Mbps, and Kenny pointed out there was no precedent for such an advanced technical specification, speculating that it could cost up to £1bn.
“The voice USO was a dusty backwater of regulation. It was not controversial and no money was at stake,” said Kenny. “This was because BT was a monopoly, the USO bit in only a small number of households, there was an obvious supplier, and the tech specifications and price were simple. None of this applies in the case of a broadband USO.”
Kenny added that satellite broadband was already technically capable of covering the entire country with a 10Mbps service – the government has already made such a service available, although take-up has disappointed – and said the debate over a broadband USO appeared to be needlessly excluding it from consideration.
Gary Miller, the head of policy at BT, added: “The concept of a universally available broadband service is something BT absolutely stands behind. But as soon as you go into a USO you bring a lot of other things with you that have a history of being inefficient and difficult to deal with.”