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BT volunteers to take on universal broadband obligation

BT’s chief strategy officer Sean Williams tells MPs the telco will happily take on any broadband USO, as parliament gathers evidence in support of the Digital Economy Bill

BT’s chief strategy officer, Sean Williams, has told a panel of MPs that BT will volunteer to become the designated universal service provider (USP) to fulfil the government’s planned broadband universal service obligation (USO) of a 10Mbps service to every premises in the UK by 2020.

Speaking at an evidence session being held in Westminster as the Digital Economy Bill continues its progress through Parliament, Williams was asked by Labour’s new shadow digital economy secretary, Louise Haigh, whether or not the 10Mbps commitment was sufficiently ambitious for the proposed USO.

“We have made clear our willingness to deliver 10Mbps to every premises in the country by 2020 without any further public funding or progressing the USO regulations,” said Williams.

Williams said the roll-out would build on BT’s aim to have fibre – in BT parlance this means fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) and copper last mile – broadband available to 95% of the country by the end of 2017, and would likely go beyond that.

He claimed ultimately, BT could reach 97% to 98% of premises with FTTC offering 24Mbps – the disputed, though government-mandated, definition of superfast broadband – and that the 10Mbps USO would, at most, apply to 1% of properties, with the final 1% better served by satellite or 4G.

“We are willing to commit to 100% coverage by 2020,” said Williams. “Our objective here is to give Ofcom and the government comfort it can be done. For our part, we are willing to take this on to make sure every single premises can get 10Mbps by 2020.”

Williams’ statement will cheer some at Ofcom, which earlier in 2016 suggested there was no appetite among communications services providers (CSPs) to become the dedicated universal service provider (USP). In response to a consultation on the subject, TalkTalk argued there should be multiple providers, and Virgin Media volunteered BT.

“We are willing to commit to 100% broadband coverage by 2020”
Sean Williams, BT

However, despite this, BT still came in for criticism from rival broadband providers, including TalkTalk, Three and Vodafone, over its continuing control over Openreach and how that would affect the USO.

TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding said that even if a 10Mbps broadband service could be guaranteed to every last premises in the UK by 2020, no matter how remote, there was a good chance that ongoing advances in technology would mean people would still be unhappy with such a slow service.

“The solution is to separate Openreach and put the USO on them. Once you have infrastructure not owned by a retail provider, it removes industry issues with the public subsidies needed for the final few percent to get proper fibre,” said Harding.

Three CEO David Dyson agreed: “Effective competition and separation of Openreach and BT is the only way you’ll get assurance customers will get the right speeds. Ofcom needs more power to enforce the right decisions and create the right competitive environment.”

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Meanwhile, Paul Morris, head of UK government affairs and sustainability at Vodafone, voiced his concern that imposing a universal service obligation might damage technological innovation.

“We need to be clear the USO won’t be in the way of the ambition to use fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), and that the people doing that have the option to be involved in the USO,” said Morris. “We need a practical approach, and the money needs to follow the results, not the other way around. We need to make sure the USO doesn’t get in the way of what needs to be done next.”

He warned the government would need to be sure it did not replicate the mistakes made when setting up Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) when it came to the USO.

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