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UPD5 Government Unveil 10Mbps Broadband Universal Service Obligation

Saturday, November 7th, 2015 (7:18 am) - Score 5,279

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has confirmed that the Government will introduce a new Universal Service Obligation (USO) that should give everybody the legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum speed of 10Mbps (Megabits per second) by 2020.

The development, which was first mooted during the March 2015 Budget announcement and gained further support following BT’s recent commitment to future improvements (here), will not come as a surprise to our regular readers.

At present Ofcom’s existing USO only requires that the national telecoms operator (BTOpenreach) 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); technically this only covers ancient dialup (28.8Kbps) connections.

Aside from that the Government has long pledged to deliver a minimum download speed of 2Mbps for all through their Universal Service Commitment (USC), although the delivery of this has been repeatedly delayed and often seemed to be in conflict with the goal of ensuring that 95% or more of the UK can access a superfast broadband (24Mbps+) speed by 2017/18. Neither of these is legally binding like a USO, which is the key difference.

It’s widely expected that the forthcoming Autumn Statement (Spending Review) on 25th November 2015 may also confirm funding and a strategy for expanding 24Mbps+ capable services to cover 100% of the United Kingdom (possibly with 1-2% via subsidised Satellite), which means that now would be a good time to plan for a USO because the underlying infrastructure should be ready by 2020.

David Cameron, Government Prime Minister, said:

Access to the Internet shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be a right – absolutely fundamental to life in 21st century Britain. That is why I’m announcing a giant leap in my digital mission for Britain. Just as our forebears effectively brought gas, electricity and water to all, we’re going to bring fast broadband to every home and business that wants it. That’s right: we’re getting Britain – all of Britain – online, and on the way to becoming the most prosperous economy in the whole of Europe.”

John Whittingdale, Culture Secretary, said:

The UK’s digital landscape is being transformed – our rollout of superfast broadband is helping millions of people who would otherwise have missed out to get online. Coverage has already reached more than 83 per cent of UK homes and businesses. By next month, 3.5 million more UK homes and businesses will have access to superfast speeds – and the Government’s superfast programme is on track to extend that to 95% by the end of 2017.”

Apparently David Cameron will be speaking about this some more on Monday and we’re told that the USO could also be “upgraded over time as technology and demand evolve,” but that’s to be expected. The Government plans to launch an official consultation on this in early 2016.

Officially we should say that the Government doesn’t clarify whether the USO is only for download speeds or uploads. Assuming the vast majority of homes are put within reach of a viable FTTC connection then a symmetrical 10Mbps would be impossible, but it’s probably safest to assume that the USO will only cover download speeds as that is the most important and easiest to deliver.

Mind you the existing USO, which also requires BTOpenreach (as well as KC in Hull) to provide a working phone line upon request, doesn’t always work as well as intended. For example, we often receive reports of people being left to wait for months before their new line arrives.

Likewise today’s copper lines can be very variable (subject to lots of different factors, such as poor home wiring or slow WiFi) and thus judging when the USO has or has not been met may prove challenging. Not that there’s ever been much in the way of actual enforcement action, aside from Ofcom’s general service improvement requirements.

At the same time there’s always the risk that introducing such a measure could impact competition and help to entrench already incumbent providers, which might make it harder for rivals to enter the market. Consumers may also face the possibility of a small price increase in order to help cater for the requirement, although this will be less of an issue come 2020 and once the Broadband Delivery UK programme has largely completed.

As a side note the Government also said that Ofcom would soon (before the end of 2015) release a new mobile app so that consumers will be able to check if their home Wi-Fi is working as it should be. They are also planning to release even more detailed, address-level mobile and broadband speed data in early 2015.

UPDATE 8th November 2015

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has welcomed the announcement and no doubt the FSB will too as they have also called for a 10Mbps USO in the recent past.

John Cridland, CBI Director-General, said:

Putting an end to the digital divide will be a shot in the arm for regional growth.

For businesses today, high quality digital connectivity is as crucial to growth and productivity as roads, railways and airports. So the Government’s commitment to continually raise the bar with this new universal service obligation of 10 mbps will be welcomed by businesses around the UK.

The CBI’s recent infrastructure survey showed that digital networks have greatly improved in recent years, but advancements in technology mean that expectation levels continue to rise. Two-thirds of businesses say that improved speed matters and greater reliability is seen as crucial by over four-fifths of firms.

The consultation on how to make this new minimum speed a reality must ensure that telecom operators are able to operate with certainty and build on the significant levels of investment they have already made, often with speeds well in excess of this.”

UPDATE 9th November 2015 (8am)

The UK Labour Party’s shadow digital economy minister, Chi Onwurah, has called for clarity on how the USO will be funded and she also added: “Five years after abandoning Labour’s fully-funded commitment to universal broadband, the government’s “superfast” broadband rollout is still being hit with delays and at the mercy of a single provider.”

In fairness Labour’s “full-funded commitment” was focused on a 2Mbps USC, not a legally-binding USO, and a firm plan for actually delivering that pledge was not published. At the time (2009/10) the idea was that they could have achieved this by 2012, but the only realistic way to have done that so quickly and without the necessary fixed line infrastructure being in-place would have been to cheat with inferior Satellite connectivity.

Meanwhile you could leverage a lot of legitimate complaints against the Broadband Delivery UK programme and BT’s dominance of the related contracts is certainly one of those. However the project has otherwise made reasonable progress for a Government scheme and we’re already seeing some areas achieve their first BDUK Phase 1 coverage goals ahead of time.

Lastly, the question of funding for the new 10Mbps USO is an interesting one. A USC budget does already exist and once the “superfast” BDUK roll-out is achieved, hopefully by 2020, then realistically it shouldn’t need a whole lot of extra public money for the deployment side.

BT has a lot of extension technologies that could bring 10Mbps to even the last 2% or so of very remote homes, but the real cost of BT may be in the on-going maintenance and upkeep of such a policy. However we’ll need to see some firm details first and that’s where Ofcom’s consultation will be so vital.

UPDATE 9th Nov (12:58pm)

A few additional comments have just come in.

Matthew Evans, CEO of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, said:

We welcome the Government’s commitment to push good quality broadband services to near universal levels for businesses and homes. Driving better coverage into the last 5% of homes who will not receive superfast broadband at the end of the current rollout is a complex but critical task and the Government is right to consult on a universal service obligation (USO) for those homes and businesses in the very hardest to reach areas.

It is important though that the Government views a USO as one of a range of options in this last 5%. More can still be done to drive private investment in digital infrastructure and it is important that this work continues. Any USO would need to be commercially viable for operators and ensure that any impact on competition is limited.”

Raj Sivalingam, executive director of techUK, said:

techUK welcomes the Government’s recognition that broadband and the online benefits that it facilitates is an essential part of our daily social and economic lives.

However, it’s important to remember that one size will not fit all in terms of the choice of services across the country. There are a number of geographic and population factors that affect this and a variety of technologies, from fibre copper and cable to wireless and satellites will be required to deliver this level of connectivity to all.

The Government is right to set the ambition. Fortunately we are starting from a position of strength in the UK. Government, Ofcom and industry now need to work together on the detail. The chosen approach must strike the right balance for UK consumers, citizens and the businesses that will deliver it.”

Mai Fyfield, Sky’s Chief Strategy Officer, added:

This is a welcome initiative and fits with Sky’s belief that the United Kingdom needs to be more ambitious in its digital infrastructure. However it is unthinkable that the Government would hand an even bigger role to BT given problems with the current roll-out, its history of poor service and the risk of declining competition. An independent Openreach, freed from the control of BT, would be able to work with the whole industry to deliver the investment and innovation that the UK needs.”

Adrian Kennard, MD of AAISP (Andrews & Arnold), said:

Thankfully for Internet access, unlike gas, electricity, and water, it can be carrier over radio waves, so any of the various satellite services that can deliver 10Mb/s would meet this objective. They are not even stupidly expensive. They work anywhere you can see the sky. So, well done David Cameron, “achievement unlocked”, 10Mb/s Internet access to even the most remote areas of the UK is now available.

The problem is that satellite links are “a bit crap”, but to be fair, they are probably fine for the objective here – allowing access to crucial services. The two issues with satellite are total bandwidth which can create levels of congestion, and latency due to laws of physics.”

UPDATE 9th Nov (2:22pm)

The UK Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) has now weighed in with their own comment.

An ISPA Spokesperson said:

ISPA agrees with the Prime Minister that broadband is vital and welcomes the ambition to get more UK homes and businesses online.

The UK market is competitive and diverse with hundreds of providers making use of various technologies. Whilst we support the objectives of a USO, as we set out in our responses to the Ofcom Review of Digital Communications and in the parliamentary inquiry on superfast broadband, there are significant questions that will need to be addressed. These include funding, the impact on competition, the existing European regulatory regime around universal service and how this fits with the current government-based rollout.

We note that a previous call for a levy to fund broadband on telephone lines in was rejected by the previous Government. ISPA is currently meeting MPs from across the UK on broadband to help connect ISPs with MPs campaigning on rural broadband.”

UPDATE 10th November 2015

A comment from the rural land owner focused Country, Land and Business Association (CLA).

Henry Robinson, CLA President, said:

This is a major breakthrough for rural communities, and will make a transformational difference to those living and working in the countryside. It is a victory for the CLA’s long-running campaign for universal broadband and our work will continue to ensure that this pledge becomes a reality for every home and business in rural areas.”

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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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