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Lords pressurise government over broadband USO

In a House of Lords debate on the Digital Economy Bill, peers passed an amendment to set the minimum standard speed for broadband at 30Mbps

The House of Lords has upped the ante over minimum broadband speeds, calling for the government to commit to a massive increase in the broadband speeds to be made available under the proposed universal service obligation (USO).

In an amendment moved by Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn in a House of Lords debate on the Digital Economy Bill, peers called for the USO to be set at 30Mbps, 20Mbps higher than the 10Mbps the government had suggested would be sufficient.

The USO, if enacted, would mean that everyone in the UK, without exception, would have the legal right to receive a service with a minimum guaranteed speed, should they request it. A similar obligation exists for landline telephones.

Mendelsohn called for the USO to deliver download speeds of 30Mbps, upload speeds of 6Mbps, fast response times, committed information rates of 10Mbps and unlimited usage, by 2020. He also said it should first be aimed at rural areas and small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Mendelsohn’s amendment also said the government must specify that the target for broadband connections and services to be provided must be faster still, over 2Gbps, and based on fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) delivery technology at a minimum.

Speaking in the Lords, Mendelsohn said the 10Mbps target, if implemented, would be swiftly exposed as completely ineffective.

“The best the report [Ofcom’s technical advice delivered to the government] can muster in defence of a 10Mbps download speed is that if it were adopted, it would have to be reviewed almost immediately,” he said.

There are three options for the USO set out by the regulator in its report, of which Mendelsohn argued that the third scenario – giving 30Mbps down and 6Mbps up – would cost £2bn, compared with the other 10Mbps options, which would cost £1.1bn and £1.6bn, respectively.

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“Crucially, the costs per household resulting from the economies of scale provided by option three move down from scenario one and are almost the same as scenario two,” he said. “The economic case for an additional £800m is extraordinarily well justified.”

Mendelsohn said his amendment was “not outlandish” but was designed to defend the government’s broadband goals. The Lords approved the amendment by 250 votes to 206, but it will still have to be approved by the House of Commons.

Previous debates on the subject in the Commons have seen MPs split on the subject of a USO, with some arguing it was unnecessary, while others, such as Labour’s Chris Bryant and the SNP’s Calum Kerr, taking the same view as the Lords, that 10Mbps was a hopelessly flawed figure.

Other stakeholders have raised concerns over how the USO would be funded. Speaking shortly after the Commons debate in September 2016, Emma Hosgood, programme director at the Broadband World Forum, asked whether or not the responsibility would fall on taxpayers or communications service providers, and whether companies such as Facebook, Netflix and Skype, which stood to benefit from improved broadband speeds, could be required to shoulder some of the burden.

BT has already said it has the ability to deliver a 10Mbps USO in the desired timeframe, according to its chief strategy officer Sean Williams. But whether it would commit to 30Mbps, should the amendment become law, is unknown.

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