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Ofcom must rethink rural broadband USO, says Lords report

There are still serious concerns about whether or not the 10Mbps broadband USO is fit for purpose, and Ofcom needs to take account of them, according to The House of Lords Select Committee for the Rural Economy

In the past few years, much progress has been made on addressing the lack of fixed broadband and mobile network connectivity in the remotest rural areas of the UK, according to the House of Lords Select Committee for the Rural Economy.

But Ofcom can do much more to improve access to digital services, it added, and needs to urgently re-examine one of the government’s keystone initiatives, the 10Mbps broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO).

The committee’s recommendations concerning improvements to network connectivity are contained in the report, Time for a strategy on the rural economy, which was compiled with input from multiple stakeholders.

Several witnesses who spoke to the committee gave new voice to concerns that have been frequently expressed in the past few years.

These include the worry that the 10Mbps speeds promised by the USO would be out of date before being delivered – a concern raised by both Margaret Clark of the Rural Coalition, who said the ambition set the bar too low, and Graham Biggs of the Rural Services Network, who said it was “incredible” that the USO was only aiming to achieve 10Mbps.

Others, such as the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB’s) Ruby Peacock, said that while the USO might meet the minimum standards for a small family, it fell far below the standards required by businesses, particularly in regard to the 1Mbps guaranteed upload.

Meanwhile, Claire Wallace, chair in sociology at the University of Aberdeen, warned that the USO would certainly not meet the needs of businesses dependent on tourism, the creative industries, or agriculture.

Concerns were also expressed about the £3,400 USO threshold – the point at which additional costs must be borne by the home- or business-owner being connected. The USO has been structured to allow multiple neighbouring properties to group together, which means some of the most isolated properties may be disadvantaged.

In its submission, the Chief Economic Development Officers’ Society called for the £3,400 cap to be removed altogether, and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) noted the “the remoteness of many rural areas and the distances involved” meant the cost of connecting isolated communities would be a significant burden on their residents.

In light of the evidence received, the Lords said: “We believe the upload and download speeds in the USO commitment are too modest and should be reviewed along with the £3,400 payment threshold.

“Government should direct Ofcom to conduct an urgent review of the USO, focusing on what minimum commitment would be needed to sustain and support rural businesses and communities.”

4G and 5G proposals

Turning to current 4G and future 5G mobile networks, the Lords raised the prospect of introducing rural roaming to address not-spots and urged Ofcom to start a review into this as a matter of urgency, as well as encouraging mobile network operators (MNOs) to share transmission masts where appropriate.

The committee also stressed the importance that rural areas are not left out during the roll-out of 5G, which will begin later in 2019. It noted the government’s proposals, made in 2018, that MNOs bidding for the upcoming 700MHz 5G spectrum auction would be made to ensure rural areas were prioritised, but expressed its disappointment that as the auction edges closer, these obligations are being “watered down” by the regulator.

It called on Ofcom to revisit its proposals for the 700MHz auction with a view to strengthening conditions around rural coverage, and do more to monitor the progress of the UK’s for MNOs in achieving their coverage obligations.

The report also called out Ofcom for not doing enough to improve access to information about digital connectivity for consumers.

While the regulator is currently running a major campaign – fronted by TV presenter Gloria Hunniford – to enlighten users about their fixed broadband service rights and options, the Lords said it needed to do more to help people access regularly updated information about the progress of local service roll-outs (including 5G when the time comes), connectivity options for rural communities, and altnet broadband providers operating in their area.

The Select Committee examined a number of opportunities and challenges faced in rural parts of the country – besides network connectivity to support the digital society, these include nearly a decade of Conservative-led cuts to local authority budgets, a lack of affordable housing, an ageing rural population, and the UK’s possible October departure from the European Union (EU).

“Rural communities and the economies in them have been ignored and underrated for too long. We must act now to reverse this trend, but we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked,” said Committee chair, Liberal Democrat peer and former MP Donald Foster.

“A rural strategy would address challenges and realise potential in struggling and under-performing areas, and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further. Doing nothing is not an option.”

Overall, the report concluded that government urgently needs to rethink and reform the proofing process to ensure relevant policies and legislation are more in tune with the needs of rural areas, and to enable local government and other public bodies to develop local rural strategies that are consistent with central government frameworks. It can be downloaded to read in full here.

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