Report reveals ‘clear gaps’ in UK’s broadband safety net

Latest update on progress of broadband roll-out guarantees from April to September 2022 shows worrying signs that as the cost-of-living crisis rolls on, swathes of the UK population could be priced out of gaining acceptable broadband

In March 2018, the UK government introduced legislation for a broadband universal service obligation (USO) to give homes and businesses the right to request a decent and affordable broadband connection, yet the latest data on the progress of the programme has raised questions over whether the government’s broadband plans as a whole, and in particular a commitment to full-fibre gigabit connectivity, are effective and are leaving large parts of the population at risk of being left behind.

Under the terms of the UK’s designated universal service provider obligations, incumbent telco BT – outside of the Hull area, where comms is led by local suppliers – is obliged to provide a minimum broadband service of 10Mbps to those who request it, if no suitable alternative service is available from BT or another supplier and no suitable improvements are planned within 12 months via a public procurement programme.

Also, BT is required to upgrade a premises’ connectivity to meet the USO criteria at no cost to the customer if the necessary works cost less than £3,400, with costs met by BT and/or the industry rather than the government. Where the necessary works cost more than £3,400, customers have the option to pay any additional costs.

In practice, upgrades typically result in building gigabit-capable, full-fibre connections. By the end of September 2022, BT had built a USO connection to more than 5,900 premises, with more than 2,000 further builds in progress.

In the report for the six months to the end of September 2022, BT also said it received just under 2,500 requests to deliver improved broadband under the USO. Of those, 937 (20%) were deemed as eligible and this resulted in 200 orders being placed by potential broadband customers, representing just 8% of the total applying.

In April 2022, the number of broadband USO requests received by the USO helpdesk totalled 693, and in September, this number was 227. In April, there were 30 confirmed orders, 12 of which will lead to the build of a new broadband network free of charge – that is, below the cost threshold – and 18 where a customer contributed to the costs. In September 2022, this number fell to 10 confirmed orders, all of which fell into the former category.

But although progress has been made, industry figures have questioned the effectiveness of the programme as regards whether it was actually prioritising those most in need and indeed providing value for money. David Hennell, business development director at alternative and rural broadband specialist National Broadband, said the UK government needed to think more laterally and move beyond the tunnel vision of its solely fibre-centric approach.

“The latest broadband USO figures show that there are clear gaps in Britain’s supposed digital safety net, with far too many households and individuals falling through the cracks,” he said. “It is vital to ensure that such individuals are not left trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide. In modern society, access to good-quality broadband is nothing less than essential, given that it has an increasingly profound impact on our daily lives and moreover on economic and educational outcomes.

“As excess costs regularly run into tens of thousands of pounds, if not more, it is hardly surprising that the USO is showing such a low take-up and proving to be such an ineffective safety net for the most digitally deprived. Especially in times of such economic turmoil, requiring individuals to pay sums that go into many thousands of pounds simply to be able to access broadband above the national minimum standard is simply unacceptable.”

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