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UK House of Lords Vote for 30Mbps Broadband USO with 6Mbps Uploads

Wednesday, Feb 22nd, 2017 (9:34 pm) - Score 2,978

The Government’s Digital Economy Bill linked proposal to introduce a 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation for broadband has taken an interesting twist today after the House of Lords approved a radical proposal, which raises the minimum download speed to 30Mbps (6Mbps upload).

At present the national Broadband Delivery UK programme only expects to push fixed line “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) services out to cover around 97% of premises by 2020, although this is a non-binding commitment and the proposed 10Mbps USO is legally-binding (i.e. suppliers would be required to deliver the minimum speed upon request).

The 10Mbps USO is broadly intended to focus on the final 3% and would be enforced from 2020. Ofcom recently revealed some of the ways in which this could be achieved (here), although we’re still waiting to learn of the Government’s final decision regarding their preferred delivery method and approach to funding. BT has also hinted that it could do most of the USO by deploying solutions like Long Reach VDSL (FTTC) technology (here and here) and possibly a bit of inferior Satellite.

However in somewhat of an 11th hour twist the Labour Party’s Lord Mendelsohn has succeeded in getting a radically different amendment voted into the bill (the vote), although it’s entirely possible that this could still be rejected by the Government at the final hurdle. The amendment was actually first proposed by Lord Fox and Lord Clement-Jones last month, although a key change is that Mendelsohn has also managed to include mobile network coverage into the USO and that’s not all..

The Amendment

(2B) The universal service order must specify that the target for broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 must have—
(a) speeds of 2 gigabits or more;
(b) fibre to the premises (FTTP) as a minimum standard;
(c) appropriate measures to ensure that internet speed levels are not affected by high contention ratios;
(d) appropriate measures to ensure service providers run low latency networks.

(2BA) The universal service order must specify as soon as reasonably practicable that, by 2020, the following will be available in every household in the United Kingdom—
(a) download speeds of 30 megabits per second;
(b) upload speeds of 6 megabits per second;
(c) fast response times;
(d) committed information rates of 10 megabits per second;
(e) an unlimited usage cap.

(2BB) In meeting the obligations set out in subsection (1), internet service providers have a duty to ensure that their networks offer at least the minimum standards specified in subsection (2BA) to every household in areas of low population density, before deploying their networks in urban areas.

(2BC) The Secretary of State must ensure that—
(a) the premises of small and medium-sized enterprises are prioritised in the roll-out of the universal service broadband obligation;
(b) rollout of universal service broadband obligations is delivered on a fair and competitive basis.

(2BD) The universal service order shall, in particular, say that mobile network coverage must be provided to the whole of the United Kingdom.

The amendment reflects “Scenario 3” in Ofcom’s recent technical proposals for the USO (linked above), which also happened to be the most expensive approach with a hefty price tag of up to around £2 billion pounds.

On top of that some people will notice that a new a “target for broadband connection speeds” of 2Gbps+ has also been set, although this appears to be more of a commitment than part of the legally-binding USO. However the language is open to interpretation and we can’t imagine how such performance could realistically be delivered “before 2020“.

Lord Mendelsohn said:

“It is also clear that in defining what decent broadband is, the [Ofcom] report indicates that 10 megabits will not be sufficient. It argues that this may be sufficient today, but not by the time the USO is proposed to be delivered.

Even if it is possible that data usage might not require any more—a point that it says is unlikely, even when the technology gains in compression and transmission techniques—other issues such as contention rates and latency would render 10 megabits unfit for usage in a very short time.

The best the report can muster in defence of a 10 megabits download speed is that if it were adopted it would have to be reviewed almost immediately. The case is compelling and it is economically justified—I look forward to the Minister’s agreement on this.

The amendments are not outlandish; they are a conservative defence of the Government’s goals. They are about making a policy fit for the future, rather than one fit for the past.”

On the one hand it’s good to see some bold ambition, but on the other hand that ambition does not explain where the funding would come from, if it would be possible to achieve the new goals by 2020 and or what impact that might have on market competition.

For example, handing the delivery of a 30Mbps USO to BT might damage the growth of alternative network providers; something Ofcom has been trying so hard to foster via their Strategic Review. We say BT because earlier consultations have also suggested that none of the other ISPs were terribly interested in taking on the legal burden of the USO.

Lord Ashton of Hyde, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, said:

“I remind noble Lords that the regulatory regime for electronic communications is shaped by four European directives, adopted in 2002 and implemented in this country through the Communications Act 2003. Amendments 1 and 2, if they are to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and others are seeking, must be consistent with this legal framework: in particular, the universal service directive. I struggle to see how a target for a 2 gigabits per second USO could possibly be compliant with EU law.

First, the purpose of universal service requirements in the EU directive is not to force the development of a nascent market, such as the UK’s fibre market, but to ensure that a baseline of services is made available to all users where market forces do not deliver this.

The USO is a safety net to prevent social and economic exclusion, not a statement of ambition: we are setting the minimum, not the maximum. This amendment is upside down, placing a ceiling on ambition rather than acting as a safeguard for those less well served by communications providers.

Secondly, the EU directive requires us to consider cost. Universal fibre to everyone’s door will be expensive as FTTP coverage is currently low. According to Ofcom’s latest Connected Nations report, only approximately 1.7% of UK premises have access to FTTP services. So clearly it would be very expensive to address this in the short term.”

The question of what happens next is also an interesting one. By approving the amendment the House of Lords has technically removed the need to consult by setting the USO requirements in stone. “I have not been in this House very long but I cannot remember many times when the Opposition asked the Government not to have a consultation when they had already offered to have one,” said Lord Ashton of Hyde.

Meanwhile the Government has promised that once work on the bill is completed there will be a public consultation on the design of the USO and they still have opportunities to cast out today’s amendment, so we wouldn’t be surprised if it was watered down or removed completely before the bill becomes an act.

As ever it’s incredibly easy to promise something impressive, but actually delivering on such ideals tends to be the hard part.

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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