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Ofcom confirms broadband USO to be introduced in March 2020

BT and Kcom will begin to provide broadband services under the government’s USO scheme from 20 March 2020

Consumers and small businesses that have been left out of both the commercial and Building Digital UK (BDUK) broadband service roll-outs will finally be able to request a connection capable of delivering download speeds of 10Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps when the government’s long-awaited Universal Service Obligation (USO) is introduced on 20 March 2020.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom confirmed the go-live date for the USO scheme this week, at the same time reconfirming that the UK’s two incumbent operators, BT and Kcom in East Yorkshire and Humberside, will be the designated service providers.

The controversial USO, which has been branded both unambitious and unfit for purpose, will in theory address the needs of around 620,000 homes and offices, roughly 2% of the UK’s total, which are either in extremely remote parts of the country, or have not been reached by any other roll-out.

“As more of our daily lives move online, bringing better broadband to people and businesses is crucial,” said Ofcom Consumer Group director Lindsey Fussell. “From next year, this new broadband safety net will give everyone a legal right to request a decent connection – whether you live in a city or a hamlet. This will be vital for people who are struggling to get the broadband they need.”

From the date of requesting a service, BT or Kcom will have 30 days to confirm whether or not the user is eligible to receive a broadband service under the USO, which will take into account factors such as whether the property already has access to decent broadband, or is due to be connected by BDUK or another public intervention within 12 months.

Installation costs will be covered to the tune of £3,400, above which people will either have to pay additional costs, seek alternative solutions such as satellite, or club together with neighbours to make a joint request.

Ofcom said that those who take up a service through the USO will pay the same prices and receive the same service quality as any other broadband customer.

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However, in spite of Ofcom’s and the government’s ambitions for the USO scheme, it is still likely that a substantial minority of users who should be eligible will likely remain left out, at least according to BT.

The telco said that it had already demonstrated that over 75% of the 620,000 homes and businesses that may be eligible for a USO service could today receive a superfast 30Mbps service using fixed wireless access (FWA) technology, relying on 4G (and eventually 5G) mobile networks. It launched such a service through EE in 2018.

Because of this, it said, it would be able to free up Openreach to focus on the task of connecting remaining 25% for whom FWA won’t be a viable solution to more traditional broadband services. However, it said, at current projections only around 40,000 properties will be reachable at a cost of under £3,400 per property, which means that around 110,000 will still be left out.

“We’ll continue to drive discussions with Ofcom, government and industry to explore alternative options to connect up every property in the country and ensure no-one is left behind,” said BT chief executive Philip Jansen.

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