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Local UK Councils Demand Action on 10Mbps Broadband USO Pledge

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016 (8:30 am) - Score 618
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The Local Government Association, which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, has called on the Government to set out a “timetable for action” on its plans to introduce a 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation for broadband in order to avoid masses of homes being left in a “digital twilight zone.”

The move appears to stem from concern that the Government’s recently published and directly related Digital Economy Bill could be suffering from delays. In keeping with that it’s feared that the disruption caused by a recent cabinet reshuffle, which saw key Digital and Culture Ministers being replaced (here), might create further obstacles to swift progress.

Ofcom’s existing and legally-binding USO only requires that BTOpenreach (and KCOM 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 this can easily be met via slow dialup (28.8Kbps) connections or better.

By comparison the new USO would focus on poorly served areas (e.g. remote rural and some digitally isolated urban communities in the final 3-5% of UK premises) and aims to ensure that everybody in those locations can access a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbps (Megabits per second) by 2020.

A technology neutral approach is likely to be adopted (further details here, here and here), with inferior Satellite connectivity also expected to play a role. At the same time the LGA notes how the Government’s (DCMS) own figures suggest that the number of homes that will be unable to access a 10Mbps service by 2017 is “likely to be as high as one million.”

Mark Hawthorne, Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said:

“It is undeniable that access to fast and reliable digital connectivity is a necessity for households and businesses in the UK. Good digital connectivity is a vital element of everyday life for residents and … As central and local government services increasingly become ‘digital by default’, more people will need to have faster and more reliable speeds.

It is paramount that the Government maintains momentum and presses ahead with plans to enshrine the USO in law. We hope that the recent changes in Government do not delay work on the USO and call on ministers to reaffirm their commitment to it.

Equally, while this minimum standard is a good start it must keep pace with national average speeds and the expectations of households especially at peak times. Without this there is the real possibility of some areas – particularly in rural and hard-to-reach areas – falling into a digital twilight zone.

Councils are best placed to understand the digital needs of local areas. They are at the centre of improving digital connectivity through helping implement superfast broadband programmes, organising local initiatives to raise residents’ and businesses’ digital skills and working with mobile operators to best place infrastructure.”

Officially the Government envisages that the new bill should have completed its passage through the Commons during this Autumn, at which point it will then go to the House of Lords and after that the aim is to achieve Royal Assent by the end of Spring 2017. At this point it’s perhaps a bit too early to be talking of delays, but the possibility does exist because the bill covers many complicated and contentious areas (e.g. changes to the Electronic Communications Code).

Never the less the LGA supports the new USO proposal, but they also want to see a “safety net for those who are unlikely to be covered by roll out plans” (we assume this is a reference to any areas that fall outside of the USO’s coverage, which might not be as quite as “universal” as the name implies) and for the speed commitment to be regularly reviewed and upgraded when necessary (The Government already appears to support this idea).

Finally, the LGA also say that the USO should define minimum levels of provision for a range of factors, shifting the focus away from “ misleading” headline speeds and towards other indicators, including upload speed, that “provide a more realistic way of determining an internet connection’s quality“. We agree with this, upload performance should be factored and in an ideal world we might even consider latency too, although delivering a symmetrical 10Mbps USO would be technically and economically very tricky via fixed lines.

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Mark Jackson
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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3 Responses
  1. Avatar Optimist

    As technology improves, how long will it be before wireless becomes the norm so we can dispense with physical connections to individual premises?

    The fixed band wireless providers do not market themselves very well. Some make headline claims of providing connectivity to anywhere in a region, which on closer inspection turn out to be false. They should consider setting up one website where potential customers could enter their postcode to find out at a glance which providers served their area rather than have to check dozens of websites individually.

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      There are major scaling issues with wireless networks. There is only a limited amount of bandwidth available and the truly high-speed services will only work fast over relatively short distances. What this would mean in practice is that the country would have to be covered in many hundreds of thousands of small wireless nodes, all of which would have to be connected via fibre backhaul (and require power). 5G promises enormous speed, but only over short distances and using very high frequencies which don’t propagate well.

      Wireless can work well for moderately high speeds over several km in suitable terrain with line-of-site, but it will hit capacity limits. Installing lots of tiny wireless cells to gain higher speed and capacity will be expensive and still require a deep fibre network, possibly of the sort that would be required of a g.fast network using local nodes. So think of wireless nodes within perhaps 200m of the premises.

  2. It is not only the case that wireless providers do not market themselves, at the start of this whole program, the push in the UK has been against wireless solutions, especially by the powers that be and the big boys. Over the last two/three years we have seen the door opening to wireless and much more discussion about it. Europe, specifically Spain in my experience, looked at all delivery models when they started the broadband roll out project and as far back as 7 years ago installed mixed media as appropriate.

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