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Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Demands USO for Broadband from UK Gov

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015 (8:07 am) - Score 526

The Deputy First Minister for the Scottish Government, John Swinney, has written to the UK’s Digital Economy Minister, Ed Vaizey, in order to call for broadband in Scotland to become part of a legally binding Universal Service Obligation. The move is designed to “ensure everyone in Scotland can access affordable, high-speed broadband“.

Lately we’ve been talking a lot about the pros and cons of adding broadband to the USO and it’s not all roses (here and here), although much would depend upon the detail and precise wording of any such development.

At present Ofcom only mandates that BT and KC (KCOM) 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” (here). The word “functional” typically implies the lowest common denominator, such as slow dialup.

On top of that the UK Government has also introduced a Universal Service Commitment (USC), which pledges to ensure that everybody can access a basic broadband speed of at least 2Mbps by early 2016. But the USC is not legally binding like a USO and has no real teeth to tackle any failings in its approach.

John Swinney, Deputy First Minister, said:

Broadband is something that everyone in Scotland should have access to – it’s a vital service in today’s world. That is why I am pressing the UK Government to introduce a broadband Universal Service Obligation, which would set out access as an entitlement.

The introduction of a USO for broadband with an appropriate speed requirement, as introduced by Finland, Malta and Spain in recent years, would be a way of ensuring that no-one is excluded from the benefits of this integral technology.

We should make more use of regulatory levers such as USOs, alongside the substantial investment that the public sector has made in digital infrastructure in recent years, to ensure access for all and to maintain a competitive environment. Ofcom’s forthcoming Strategic Review of Digital Communications will be an opportunity to consider how best to do this and the Scottish Government looks forward to working with the UK Government and Ofcom as part of the new enhanced role recommended by the Smith Commission.

I believe that a broadband USO could make an important contribution to our digital ambitions for Scotland and I call on the UK Government to take this forward.”

At present the £410m Digital Scotland programme is already working to ensure that 95% of premises across the country can have access to “fibre broadband” connectivity by the end of 2017, although until recently they’ve been distinctly less clear about what kind of service speeds will actually be delivered (here).

The call for a USO is also technically nothing new for the SNP, which made a similar demand last year during the tense Scottish Referendum debate (here). A recent survey conducted by ourselves also found that most consumers supported the desire for broadband to become part of a USO (here), provided it didn’t result in a price hike.

But adding broadband into the USO is something that would need to be handled with the utmost care and it’s unlikely to solve Scotland’s broadband woes, especially with faster connectivity still being rolled out.

On top of that such a USO may increase prices for consumers and impact competition or investment by inadvertently helping to further entrench incumbent providers, although there’s no reason why such issues can’t be solved with a common sense policy; assuming the regulator and politicians can create one.

Leave a Comment
1 Response
  1. Avatar DTMark says:

    The first step is to determine whether broadband is a publicly or privately operated and provisioned service.

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