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UK Lords Report Demands Universal Internet Access as a Utility Service

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 (9:59 am) - Score 899

The House of Lords, specifically their Digital Skills Committee, has today published a new report and warned that the United Kingdom is at a “tipping point” because it hasn’t fully addressed the “significant digital skills shortage“. One of the proposed remedies for this is to define the Internet as a utility service, “available for all to access and use“.

Unfortunately the full report (‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future‘), which also recommends that the next Government build a “Digital Agenda” to tackle the problems that have been identified (perhaps borrowing from Europe’s similarly titled scheme), is somewhat vague about its proposed utility definition and merely recommends the following change.

Access to digital technologies

305. Objective 1: The population as a whole has unimpeded access to digital technology.

306. This includes:

(a) facilitation of universal internet access: the internet is viewed as a utility; and

(b) removal of ‘not-spots’ in urban areas.

Generally speaking most utility companies are considered to be statutory undertakers, which have a statutory right or duty to install, inspect, maintain, repair, or replace apparatus in or under the street in primary legislation.

Baroness Morgan, Chair of the Committee, said:

This report is a wake-up call to whoever forms the next Government in May. Digital is everywhere, with digital skills now seen as vital life skills. It’s obvious, however, that we’re not learning the right skills to meet our future needs.

The Committee also found that internet provision in the UK needs a boost. It’s unacceptable that some urban areas still experience ‘not-spots’, particularly where the lack of internet directly affects the UK’s ability to compete. Also, in some parts of the UK, as many as 20% of the population has never used the internet. Only when the Government treats the internet as a utility, as important and vital for people as water or electricity, will these issues be addressed.

Our overwhelming recommendation is that the incoming Government creates a Digital Agenda, with the goal of securing the UK’s place as a leading digital economy within the next five years. Digital skills can no longer be dealt with by individual departments – this must all join up. We urge the new Government to create a Cabinet Minister post to steer this Digital Agenda through.”

It should be noted that Ofcom already applies a Universal Service Obligation (USO) to BT and KC (note: KC is only relevant for the ‘Hull Area’) and this requires that both operators deliver, following the “reasonable request of any End-user“, a telephone service that includes the ability to offer “data rates that are sufficient to permit functional internet access” (i.e. it doesn’t strictly have to be broadband capable).

However the Digital Skills Committee only appears to call for “Internet access” to be considered as a utility service, yet it perhaps misses a rather significant aspect by failing to define clearly what they think that should constitute. The word broadband isn’t used in their recommendation and as a result the United Kingdom, under the reports limited definition, could perhaps already be said to have met the required objective (especially if you cheat with Satellite, but even ADSL can reach nearly all UK homes).

No doubt the current Government would point towards their £1.7bn Broadband Delivery UK programme with BT as a sign of the investment that’s already being made into the national infrastructure; although this largely excludes dense urban areas (business connection vouchers can cater for some urban areas, but they do little to help residential homes).

It’s just a shame that today’s report didn’t put a little more effort into defining the expectations for the type and performance of Internet access as a utility service, since without this even a useless dialup line could arguably qualify.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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