Prime Minister announces consultation next year on a 10 mbps Broadband USO

I was delighted to hear that the Government will consult on how to achieve a Universal Service Obligation of at least 10 mbps. I remember the furious back-tracking when Stephen Timms attempted to commit the last Labour Government to a commitment of at least 2 mbps.

Before Stephen became a minister I was one of the rapporteurs on the PITCOM visits to look at telecoms policy in the US (during the run up to the legislation to create the regulatory regime that enabled the burgeoning of the commercial Internet) and Scandinavia and Germany (from the planning of Stokab to the forward strategies of Nokia and Seimens). Stephen knew exactly what he was asking then. I remember the pleasure of hosts at meeting a politician who understood the meaning of the answers he was being given. He knew exactly what he was saying when he publicly announced a commitment (at a Parliament and the Internet event) for “at least” 2 mbps. Unfortunately such commitments are not binding.

We need to ensure that broadband users, urban as well as as rural, business as well as consumers, give the ministers more support than they did to Stephen Timms as they seek to challenge the “establishment view” that was so excellently summarised by Richard Hooper in his keynote at the start of the Next Gen Conference on Guy Fawkes day.

To unfairly and simplistically paraphrase his introduction of the current state of debate and the discussion that followed:

“The establishment believes telecoms is an natural monopoly except for the urban areas where there is already competition. They also believe that the only way of building and running a network to serve the entire country and deliver a universal service obligation is that inherited from BT    

The anti-establishment community believes BT is the font of all evil and we should have full and free competition at all levels, but with BT shackled by regulators and/or broken up.”
Both sides are, of course, wrong. 

BT is a large part of any “solution” and, while telecoms is an essential utility, it is not a natural monopoly. There is a kaleidoscope of network technologies and architectures available. Many are more cost-effective for large parts of the country and/or communities of users  than those currently deployed by BT. This is particularly true when it comes to meeting the needs of the socially and geographically excluded: whether isolated at the end of country lanes or at the top of inner city tower blocks.

As I have blogged before, an internet age requires an internet approach – i.e. a focus on addressing and inter-operability standards so that the full range of past, current and future networks can inter-communicate and collectively form a resilient and evolving mesh.

BT’s networks will be a core part of that mesh but the mesh should be capable of functioning if they go off air, just as the internet was intended to continue to function if any one network, however big, went off air. The business cases for the competitors to BT are often surprisingly good (payback inside 3 – 5 years, not 20), provided they are not constrained by “an establishment regulatory regime” to follow BT’s business model or fit within its legacy architecture

That raises the question of  what a universal service obligation means, how it will be achieved and how the performance should monitored. Last week I tried to pull together some of my own thoughts on the subject  It is not an easy topic. As will be obvious from my other past blogs, I believe the Government is quite right to go for a service that reliably delivers at least 10 mbps  (not just “up to” 10 mbps, averaged over 24 hours) by 2020. I also believe it is a good idea to allow time to get the questions right before going out to consult on how to achieve that objective. 

I also hope, however, to see a lot more in the Autumn statement about how the government  plans to allow market forces to meet the demand for world class broadband across all those parts of the UK where customers are willing to pay a globally competitive price.   

Meanwhile I ask readers to lobby the Government via all channels, particularly their constituency MPs, welcoming the announcement and suggesting the questions to be asked.