The Government’s plan to introduce a new legally-binding 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband has been criticised by the Rural Services Network, which described the proposal as “disappointing” and highlighted further dissatisfaction with the “right to request” approach.
At present the national Broadband Delivery UK programme is widely expected to put “superfast” (24 – 30Mbps+) capable fixed line networks within reach of 95% of premises by 2017, although once clawback and savings from earlier deployment phases have been reinvested then the expectation is that coverage could hit 97% by around 2018/19.
Sadly it’s notoriously expensive to upgrade those in the final 3% and so the Government has proposed to update the United Kingdom’s existing USO (here and here), which currently only requires KCOM (Hull-only) and BT to install a working phone line that supports slow dialup Internet access.
Under the new plan this USO would be revised to support a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbps (Megabits per second) via a technologically neutral approach, although precise details of how this would work have yet to be set out.
Never the less the RSN has today joined with others to criticise the proposed USO, which they fear could result in some rural consumers being left to face “unreasonable connection costs“. The main bone of contention appears to be with the Government’s proposal that the USO offer a “right to request” access to a 10Mbps broadband network, rather than a true universal provision of access to such networks.
“This is very disappointing and means that households and businesses in the final 5% are being treated quite differently from those in the 95%. Some form of uniform pricing structure is therefore required for USO provision, [which] would be in line with other USOs, such as that for postage.
Setting a £3,400 (or similar) connection cost threshold will impose a cost penalty on many rural consumers, which in certain cases could be very high. The USO could be especially unfair to the farming community.
We do not think it is either fair or reasonable to make consumers responsible for all of the costs above such a threshold. This will result in some deciding to forego a broadband connection and will particularly hit low income rural households or financially marginal rural businesses.
We conclude that the proposed threshold is both fundamentally unfair to the final 5% of consumers and is likely to be unworkable in the real world.”
In fairness the “right to request” isn’t really all that different from the existing USO, which also requires that BT or KCOM only deliver the telephone service following the “reasonable request of any End-user” (i.e. demand-led).
The current USO similarly sets a cost threshold of £3,400 and this price was largely recycled as an example for discussion in the new USO proposal, although no final threshold has been set (some have indicated that it might even need to be higher) and in reality most people only pay a small connection charge (c. £130 or less).
On top of that the most expensive to connect premises may also still attract excess construction charges that exceed this threshold (could add £ thousands), although consumers have the option not to proceed. All of this is under the current USO and that’s just catering for a basic telephone line.
The challenge for the Government is clear, how to deliver a credible USO without ignoring the reality of network performance, coverage and costs. If the USO was truly universal (note: 100% landmass coverage of 10Mbps capable fixed lines is not realistic) and had no cost cap then somebody could build a small house on top of a mountain and expect the operator to connect them up for a tiny setup fee, even if it might cost the provider £ tens of thousands.
Providers also need legislative flexibility to account for issues like new build properties, where the building itself often exists before you connect it up. For example, on smaller developments an operator like BT may only find out that the build has been completed when a customer orders the new service.
The result of all this may be a compromise solution, which would see most of the USO being delivered by fixed lines (e.g. Long Reach VDSL / FTTC) and the final 1% or so being left with inferior Satellite broadband or a reasonable fixed wireless connection as the only option. But finding smaller ISPs that would be willing to tie themselves into a binding USO might be tricky.
Elsewhere the little known business ISP called Toople.com has setup a NEW PETITION that calls for true “100% broadband coverage for everyone in the UK,” albeit while somehow forgetting to add in a defined level of performance (around 99% can already access a very basic ADSL broadband service).