This government's cowardice over the broadband USO is farcical

So the Digital Economy Bill, setting new standards for broadband and mobile provision, data-sharing and more, is law, waved through along with a whole bunch of other stuff the government would rather you forgot about and just in time for the dissolution of Parliament ahead of the General Election.

Among the provisions in the Bill is a longed-for and long-debated broadband universal service obligation (USO) that enables anybody to ask for and receive a broadband connection with a minimum speed of 10Mbps. The government thinks this is a great moment that will guarantee fit-for-purpose broadband connectivity for consumers the length and breadth of the land.

I think that is a steaming load of rubbish.

Earlier in 2017, the House of Lords proposed an amendment that would have more than doubled this USO from a rather lacklustre but serviceable 10Mbps to a fairly nippy 30Mbps.

The Lords said that the proposed 10Mbps USO was so slow it would probably have to be reviewed almost immediately, while the economies of scale associated with an enhanced 30Mbps USO meant that the extra public money that will be needed to fund it can be easily accounted for.

But this clause never made it into the final cut of the Bill. Why is that?

Those excuses in full

Speaking in the House of Commons last week, digital and culture secretary Matt Hancock set out his justification for flinging the amendment out.

At first, he said he feared that a 30Mbps USO would be undeliverable – although on what basis remains unclear – and said that the risk of a legal challenge to a 30Mbps USO from the industry was too much to bear, which suggests to me that someone who works at a major telecoms operator with a two letter name might have popped by the office to have a quiet word, although of course that is spurious tittle-tattle on my part and you should make up your own mind as to whether or not it happened.

Hancock proceeded to perform an Olympic standard mental gymnastics routine, saying that because the USO was being legislated for under the European Union (EU) telecoms framework, which requires a USO to ensure a baseline of services where a “substantial minority has taken up the service but the market has not delivered” the fact that very few people were taking a service of over 300Mbps meant that providing a service of just a tenth of that speed (and remember that 30Mbps is certainly good enough for a high-def Netflix binge) was therefore quite out of the question.

In Hancock’s favour, he did say that a future government would review the 10Mbps USO once take-up of superfast broadband hit 75%. However one might quite reasonably induce that if Openreach is only going to be held to a 10Mbps USO, which is not superfast and therefore cannot count towards the 75% figure, that point will take a while to reach.

Frankly, this ridiculous kind of chicken and egg politics is holding back the UK’s digital economy. And the thing is, it’s not even a chicken or egg situation: it is quite evident, although apparently not to Mr Hancock, that there cannot be a superfast broadband subscriber without a superfast broadband connection!

Broadband omnishambles

However you spin it, and Lord knows we try to be positive, it seems clear to me that under both David Cameron and Theresa May, the current government has been totally shambolic in its commitment to the UK’s broadband infrastructure.

Once again for the slower MPs: you. cannot. build. a. digital. economy. without. good. connectivity.

This is even more important in these Brexit-means-Brexit days, for as Computer Weekly has made clear loudly and on several occasions ever since the EU referendum, we are shortly going to be doing business with the world without the benefits of being part of a massive trading bloc with our closest and most valued neighbours. We’re going to need every advantage we can get!

At the end of the day, the Digital Economy Bill is a bad law and Matt Hancock’s failure to stand up to the commercial interests of Big Telco and commit once and for all to take bold action over broadband provision has done the UK a huge disservice.

I wish I could write that we hope for positive change after the General Election, but I fear that would be in vain.