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UK Labour Report Calls for Universal Service Obligation on Internet Access

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014 (1:21 pm) - Score 721

A Digital Government Review conducted for the British Labour party, which was commissioned by Chi Onwurah MP but claims to be independent, has called for a future Labour Government to consider implementing a Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Internet access (potentially applying to both fixed line and mobile operators).

The report appears to be a lot more grounded than some of the dizzy expectations found in a separate piece by Labour Activists during September 2014 (here), which among other things demanded a “national focus on connectivity” that would deliver 1Gbps broadband for all by 2020; including 10Gps connections for business hubs like Tech City (good luck getting it done in that timescale).

However broadband access wasn’t technically within the scope of today’s report, although they did touch on the perceived need for a legally binding Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Internet access (we note they don’t actually use the word “broadband” in their recommendation).

Recommendation 6 – Priority: high

During the review, multiple submissions and comments were made stating the need for changes to the broadband market, the need for rural broadband, the potential of white space technologies, the need for free Wi-Fi in all municipal areas, the need for telecommunications operators to offer cheaper deals to excluded citizens, the benefits of local authorities negotiating group deals for digital access for citizens in need, or the need for an updated Universal Service Obligation.

These are complex matters and could form a policy review in their own right. Without wishing to prejudice other policy groups working on this area, the Digital Government Review team would recommend that at a minimum the next government should ask Ofcom to produce a report on a Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Internet access within 90 days of taking office.

As ever with anything political, especially a report like this that is coming so close to the next 2015 General Election, it’s important to take a close look at what’s actually being said. The actual recommendation is not for a USO, but rather a report that would “consider how a USO could support both fixed and mobile services and whether a USO would usefully describe different obligations for differing sections of the market“.

The words “Internet access” are also used instead of “broadband“, which may or may not be significant but you always have to be careful with politics. Definition is important because Ofcom’s existing USO already requires BT and KC (KCOM) to provide customers with “functional internet access“, although the regulator defines this as a “narrowband connection” capable of at least 28.8 Kbit/s (slower than a lot of dialup links).

Admittedly once the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme is completed and 100% have access to “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) speeds by around 2020 (note: the current target is 95% by 2017 but 100% is the next aim to match with the EU’s Digital Agenda) then it would perhaps be a good idea to consider expanding the USO to broadband. But no doubt BT and others will argue that this would risk pushing prices up in order to cater for such a commitment, yet it might also be a price worth paying.

As it stands the reports recommendation isn’t yet a formal policy of the Labour Party, although with May 2015 fast approaching it shouldn’t be long before we get a chance to find out where all of the parties stand in terms of their broadband commitments.

In addition, the report also aims to reduce the number of people who are offline by around a quarter come 2016 and eliminate “internet illiteracy” by 2020. Funnily enough we’ve seen similar commitments made by both of the last two Governments, yet most movement online still occurs naturally. Ironically a USO might force prices up and make net access less attractive to the poorest in society.

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6 Responses
  1. Avatar Steve Jones says:

    Eliminate “internet illiteracy” by 2020. Politicians have been trying to eliminate the conventional form of this for a century or so, and they’ve yet to succeed.

    Actually, there’s a serious point here. There are large numbers of, especially elderly people, who have trouble with using on-line systems. They aren’t all going to conveniently expire by 2020. There are not doubt younger ones too. As things go on-line, then accessibility to basic services becomes a real problem. Such people will need assistance, not glib lines such as “eliminating Internet illiteracy”. Indeed, such language is in danger of stigmatising people.

    1. Avatar dragoneast says:

      Um. My, admittedly limited experience is actually the opposite. Older people take better to on-line services, since they have the needed resource, time. Younger people have other priorities. And people are fed up with being told what to do, and being lectured is the worse way to teach anything. The lesson of social media is what we all know from our own experience, anyway: people learn what they want to learn, i.e. what is easy and convenient for them. The IT world has always seen itself as one for the cognoscenti. And still does. (Just try to get any IT/comms pro to change anything. Like the Church they have timescales geared to eternity. And the customer is always wrong). All the political hectoring in the world doesn’t make anything relevant or convince the refuseniks and doubters.

    2. Avatar Steve Jones says:

      I suppose it depends on what you mean as elderly. I wouldn’t put those in their sixties in that category.

      What I can say of my experience of people (mostly relatives) of my parent’s generation, who are well into their 80s, is that it is a real problem. My stepfather (88) has a background in engineering, and can cope reasonably except for his failing eyesight. He’s actually been using a computer for 10 years or so. However, that’s only when things behave in a well defined way. If something goes slightly wrong then he gets stuck. My mother and my aunt (a little younger) are another thing altogether. They find the whole thing baffling, and all the tangling with userids, passwords and much else is totally alien.

      There’s a further issue. People of that age are quite vulnerable (one of the reasons that conmen prey on them). It means security issues are of particular concern. Memorising passwords is a real problem.

      In short, this is a non-trivial issue. I’m sure that many people will have had to help out elderly relatives in this regard.

    3. Avatar dragoneast says:

      Passwords are a good example of what I mean by the IT industry reluctance to learn and serve the consumer. There are alternatives. But the industry often says “this is the way we do it” and the consumer has to adapt. It should be the other way around. Too often the police attitude is “do as you’re told” too. But it’s difficult to tell a real one from a fake one. It’s a sad fact of life that as so many older people are now richer, the fraud will follow the money. It always has. The digital world is no different in that regard from the real one. As you say too families can help (usually more effectively than the Government), but again it’s the shortage of that most valuable currency, time, again.

  2. Avatar Raindrops says:

    I wonder when they are going to eliminate “Flat pack DIY illiteracy” reading the Ching-lish instructions really is difficult at times. Oh no the idiots in charge will probably think that a good idea

  3. Avatar gerarda says:

    I note from a 2005 Ofcom report that the USO was kept as a narrow band as ” the BT Adsl roll out will make DSL available to 99.4 per cent of the population by mid 2005.”

    Ofcom have always been consistent in their ability to a) act as a spokesman for BTs propaganda dept and b) in their failure to understand the technology they are regulating.

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