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No superfast broadband requirement in Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill has received Royal Assent during the pre-election wash-up period, but a Lords amendment demanding a legal minimum broadband speed of 30Mbps has been ditched due to take-up concerns

The controversial Digital Economy Bill has become law at the last possible moment before the dissolution of parliament ahead of the June 2017 General Election, but a House of Lords amendment demanding a minimum legal broadband speed requirement of 30Mbps has not made the final cut due to concerns that not enough people have taken up a superfast service on the open market to warrant it.

The amendment was initially moved by Labour’s Lord Mendelsohn in February 2017, increasing a proposed 10Mbps universal service obligation (USO) to 30Mbps. At the time, Mendelsohn said the 10Mbps USO would be swiftly exposed as completely inadequate, and successfully argued that while providing a universal 30Mbps service could cost as much as £800m more, the economic case for it was “extraordinarily well justified”.

However, in the pre-Election “wash up” rush to bring in legislation, this clause was dropped. Explaining the rejection of the amendment, digital and culture secretary Matt Hancock said he had serious concerns as to whether the amendment was deliverable, and added that it was felt counterproductive to set a 30Mbps USO because of the risk of legal challenge by network builders such as Openreach, and the delays that would cause.

“We are legislating for the USO under the EU telecoms legislative framework, under which a USO is intended to ensure a baseline of services where a substantial majority has taken up the service but the market has not delivered, and where users are at risk of social exclusion.

“According to Ofcom’s latest data, from 2016, take-up of ultrafast broadband with a download speed of 300Mbps per second and higher was less than 0.1%, so we are nowhere near being able to demonstrate that the majority of the population have access to full fibre with a download speed of 2Gbps per second,” said Hancock.

“We therefore cannot accept Lords amendment one, and we are not in a position of a substantial majority having taken up superfast broadband.”

The government said it would propose an amendment in lieu requiring a broadband USO to be set at 10Mbps, and for a future government to review this once take-up of superfast broadband services hits 75%, whenever that might be.

Read more about the broadband USO

Shadow digital economy minister Louise Haigh said it was disappointing to see the government back away from a more ambitious USO.

“We would have liked the government to back 30Mbps for all, and I do not accept that millions of consumers and businesses should simply be left behind. This was an opportunity to prepare the UK for the ubiquitous future demanded by the digital revolution, and although the government’s amendment is a first step, it is a baby step and nothing more,” she said.

“Now should have been the moment to lay the foundations for not just a world-leading digital sector, but a truly world-leading economy with digital inclusion at its heart,” said Haigh.

“Although the bill undoubtedly brings forward some welcome changes, it has revealed an alarming lack of ambition for the country and a worrying indication of the government’s priorities in relation to tech as we Brexit.”

Calls for more ambition

Calum Kerr, who represents the Scottish National Party on digital matters, said: “We would have liked to see more ambition, and the 30Mbps option, which was one of those proposed by Ofcom, highlights that that was possible. I do not accept the government’s argument that it was not possible to be more ambitious because of the mechanism itself. If that truly is the case, we are perhaps choosing the wrong mechanism.”

The Digital Economy Bill also contains controversial clauses around data-sharing, described by the Lords as inappropriate in terms of the degree of access to personal data that they allow, and introduces stringent new restrictions on the provision of and access to online pornography, which some civil rights campaigners have derided as draconian.

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