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Government’s broadband service obligation derided by industry

As Ofcom starts the process of finding a provider willing to step up to manage the government’s 10Mbps broadband universal service obligation, the project has been derided by network builders and stakeholders alike

Telecoms regulator Ofcom has begun the process of selecting the communications service provider (CSP) that will supply broadband services requested under the government’s broadband universal service obligation (USO), even as broadband sector stakeholders continue to deride it as unambitious and unfit for purpose.

The broadband USO gives consumers left out of commercial and Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) roll-outs the right to request a service capable of delivering download speeds of 10Mbps, deemed to be sufficient for basic levels of engagement with the digital economy.

The USO faced considerable criticism during its passage into law, even becoming the subject of a tussle between the House of Commons and the House of Lords over a Lords’ amendment that would have set it at 30Mbps.

Even though the USO is now on the statute books, at the annual Connected Britain event in London this week, a succession of speakers and panellists lined up to criticise it, with Barry Forde, founder and chief executive of rural community broadband network builder B4RN, going so far as to describe it as “a bit of a farce”.

Forde said that on its foundation, B4RN had taken a conscious decision to go for full-fibre because it was trying to aim ahead of the market and wondered why the government had failed to take the same view.

“If you’re spending a lot on labour and capital-intense infrastructure, it is silly to take a short-term view. We’re looking at an 80-year window and it [full-fibre] is the only thing that is going to deliver,” he said.

David Burns, chair of the UK Wireless Internet Service Providers’ Association (UKWispa) and managing director of Boundless Networks, a Leeds-based supplier of wireless broadband across northern England, branded the USO as “silly”.

“About 30Mbps is the minimum you should have today, [and] over the next five years 100Mbps will be the minimum. Beyond that it steps up at a bigger rate,” he said.

Chris Taylor, BDUK programme manager at Connecting Shropshire, said his ambition was not to have to rely on the USO to connect the remaining properties under his jurisdiction.

“Whether or not it [the USO] will afford a reasonable level of connectivity we don’t know. Our aspiration has been to provide superfast broadband [and] we anticipate we can get superfast to everybody. USO is a fallback,” he said.

BDUK CEO Raj Kalia added that in the field, an increasing number of existing BDUK contracts were delivering full-fibre, and most contracts that are still out to tender “will have a huge amount of full-fibre”.

Others warned that there was some danger that consumers might get the wrong end of the stick. Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at comparison service uSwitch, noted: “We have to be careful communicating the USO to consumers because it has been sold as whatever you have will be 10Mbps, when it’s actually the right to request that service. If we fall into the trap of creating false expectations for consumers it may be that consumers won’t upgrade.”

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While she did not directly criticise her own party’s policy, Caroline Johnson, MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham in Lincolnshire, which has the distinction of being one of the UK’s more poorly served areas, also spoke of a lack of ambition in terms of addressing the needs of the digitally excluded.

“If we’re investing in rural broadband, we should invest in putting them ahead of the game, rather than going back and back again, which in the long run costs more,” she said.

Services delivered under the USO will have to be capable of providing download speeds of 10Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps; to have a contention ratio of no higher than 50:1; to have latency capable of allowing users to make and receive voice over IP (VoIP) phone calls; and to have the capability to allow data usage of up to 100GB per month.

Eligible users will have to live in a location where no connection that meets the USO specification is available; where a compliant connection will not be provided through BDUK or future equivalents within 12 months; and where the cost of connection is under £3,400, above which the user would have to pay additional costs themselves.

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