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UK Government Begins Consultation on 10Mbps Broadband USO

Wednesday, Mar 23rd, 2016 (1:09 pm) - Score 1,309

The Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport has launched its official consultation on the proposal to introduce a new legally binding Universal Service Obligation (USO), which would ensure that everybody could get a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbps (Megabits per second) by 2020.

Ofcom’s existing USO only requires that BTOpenreach (and KCOM / KC in Hull) deliver, following the “reasonable request of any End-user” (i.e. demand-led), a telephone service that includes the ability to offer “data rates that are sufficient to permit functional internet access” (here); but strictly speaking this only covers ancient dialup (28.8Kbps) connections.

At this point it’s important not to confuse a legally binding USO with the non-binding pledge to deliver a minimum download speed of 2Mbps to all through the Universal Service Commitment (USC), which as we know has been achieved through the quick-fix of inferior Satellite technology (here and here) and isn’t enforced. Similarly the USO would be a complement, not replacement, for the on-going deployment of 24Mbps+ capable “superfast broadband” services to 95-96% of the UK by 2016/17.

The Government first proposed the idea of a broadband USO all the way back in their original Budget 2015 announcement (here), but it wasn’t until November 2015 that they set the speed target at 10Mbps (here). Prior to that BT had also hinted that they could support a USO of 5-10Mbps (here), provided there was a favourable regulatory environment (a nod to Ofcom’s Strategic Review).

Since then BT has suggested that the proposed USO could be delivered by a mix of existing “fibre broadband” (FTTC / VDSL, G.Fast and FTTP etc.) solutions to reach 99% of the UK for just under £2 billion (alternative methods would be required for the final 1%). BT hinted that a much cheaper approach may also be viable, possibly by using long reach VDSL (details), fixed wireless / mobile networks (4G) and or ADSL2+ from the street cabinet (here) etc.

But so far the details have remained unclear and there are big questions about which technologies would be used (we hope they don’t use Satellite), what operators should play a role in helping to deliver the USO (BT is the logical choice, but others may play a role), how much it would all cost and whether the 10Mbps commitment should include upload as well as download speeds. In an ideal world we’d like latency time to be factor too, but that’s just wishful thinking.

Ed Vaizey MP, Digital Economy Minister, said:

“We are maintaining momentum on our commitment to implement the USO in this Parliament. This consultation sets out the roadmap that we propose to follow for delivering that commitment. The first step, should we legislate, will be to set out our intention in primary legislation.

This Government has a clear digital agenda, and our ambition is for world-­class digital connectivity at ultrafast speeds. As the country continues to take great strides towards ever‐better connectivity, a broadband USO will help ensure that no‐one is left behind -­ a digital safety net for all.

Although the market has been successful in delivering superfast connectivity to the majority, this has been supported by public funding, and even with this support there are still pockets of the country where decent connectivity is an aspiration rather than a reality.”

Today’s consultation, which will run until 18th April 2016 (not a lot of time given the impending Easter holiday), is primarily seeking views from ISPs and infrastructure (network) operators. It also appears to confirm that the USO’s main focus will be on the 1 million or so UK premises (more than half of these are in rural areas) that by 2017 won’t have benefited from the roll-out of 24Mbps+ connectivity.

However the USO should be “universal” and so anybody who suffers a drop in speed to below 10Mbps would still theoretically be able to benefit from its protection, at least that’s normally how these things work. It also generally requires a technologically neutral and cost effective approach, so it doesn’t have to be delivered via a fixed line solution.

Consultation Statement

We believe that, for those premises that will not have been reached by commercial investment or by the Government’s interventions by the end of the current planned programmes, the time has come for a demand-led approach. Given the high costs of providing broadband access to premises in remote areas it is right that this is done on request, rather than rolling it out and waiting to see if people in those areas want to be connected.

We know from the various interventions that the Government has made to date that it is unlikely that everyone will want to be connected, even if that option is made available to them, and so we do not believe that an additional broadband roll-out programme at this time is proportionate or would represent value for money.

The above statement is somewhat misleading since rural areas tend to demonstrate some of the strongest uptake as they are the ones that have been most starved of good connectivity, yet some of the quick fix schemes offered by the Government (e.g. Satellite subsidy) haven’t been so popular. But then Satellite is a notably inferior technology to fixed line or fixed wireless alternatives and people are often concerned that if they accept the subsidy then they will sign away any hope of receiving better connectivity in the future.

The document also agrees with Ofcom and states that the figure of 10Mbps will “raise over time” as technology improves. “As demand for, and investment in, ultrafast [i.e. G.Fast, FTTP, DOCSIS3.1 etc] services grows, the broadband USO will provide a backstop to ensure that everyone has access to a decent level of broadband,” said the consultation.

The USO is also being targeted at affordable connections, which means that an operator can’t escape responsibility by simply saying, “Well.. you could have this really expensive leased line built to your home for thousands of pounds.”

Finally, the consultation notes that other EU states have also adopted USOs, with Spain, Belgium and Croatia all using 1Mbps, while Finland has stuck at 2Mbps and Malta is on 4Mbps. More EU states are expected to follow in the near future.

Otherwise Ofcom is expected to follow-up today’s consultation with one of their own by the end of 2016 and the Government will then follow that by consulting on the detail of any proposed changes, which could run into 2017. Lastly there will be a final consultation to confirm the regulatory changes, but as we know the USO itself may not be formally introduced until 2020.

The Broadband USO Consultation

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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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