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SNP and Labour Criticise UK Gov Failure to Support a 30Mbps Broadband USO

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017 (5:51 pm) - Score 613

Last week’s entirely unsurprising decision by the Government to drop a proposed 30Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband, in favour of the originally proposed 10Mbps, has not gone down well with either the opposition Labour Party or SNP. Both have branded it a “missed opportunity.”

Since last year the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17, which was approved last week and will now become an Act, has been proposing a new legally-binding USO that from 2020 would give everybody the right to request a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbps+ from the chosen suppliers. This is a big step up from the current USO, which only supports a basic copper telephone line and “functional” Internet access (slow dialup could meet this).

Generally speaking USO’s are only intended to cater for an absolute minimum level of service (most EU states either have no USO for broadband or something much slower than 10Mbps). However, in February 2017 the House of Lords threw a political spanner into the works by voting to approve a radically different USO that would set the minimum speed at 30Mbps+ and hold an aspiration to deliver 2Gbps for all via FTTPbefore 2020” (here).

Considering that the Government’s non-binding virtual commitment for fixed line broadband currently only envisages achieving around 97% coverage of “superfast broadband” (this usually reflects speeds of 24Mbps+ or 30Mbps+) by 2020 then the chances of a 30Mbps USO, which Ofcom estimated could have cost up to £2bn to deliver (here), being passed was always quite remote. However it was an attractive attempt to do something more radical and we commend the effort.

By comparison the 2Gbps for all via FTTP target was clearly bonkers, although it might have had more weight had the Lords chosen to give it a much.. much more distant time-scale instead of the completely absurd “before 2020” expectation. Maybe add a decade or two to that and a few tens of billions of pounds in investment, albeit from where.. we don’t know.

In any case there’s a General Election coming on 8th June 2017 and so last week’s predictable decision by the Government to drop the 30Mbps USO amendment (here) and return to their original 10Mbps figure has of course come under fire because.. politics.

Fergus Ewing (MSP), Scotland’s Connectivity Secretary for the SNP, said:

“Unfortunately the UK Government has chosen the short-term option and set the USO at just 10Mbps, that is a missed opportunity and it does demonstrate how the reserved nature of telecoms can often undermine our policy ambitions here in Scotland.

It’s not the taxpayers’ job to fund the provision of mobile or internet services in cities where frankly commercial operators already do that and make a good return. Where our money in Scotland and the UK comes in and is required is to get the other parts where commercial operators wouldn’t otherwise reach, the rural parts and the island parts, and sadly that’s where we’ve really been badly let down by the UK Government.”

The Scottish Government (SNP) has already announced an aspiration to make 30Mbps+ broadband available to 100% of premises by 2021 via an “outside-in” approach (prioritising public investment for the hardest to reach rural areas first), which is an improvement on the existing £410m Digital Scotland project that aims to make “high speed fibre broadband” available to 95% of the country by the end of March 2018.

As yet we’re still awaiting details on how the Scottish Government will achieve their new universal coverage aspiration, not least in regards to their technology choices (inferior Satellite perhaps?) and funding. Nevertheless Scotland deserves credit for setting a clear ambition for universal coverage of superfast broadband, which is something that the central UK Government has been unable to match.

Naturally the SNP aren’t the only party with knives out and the UK Labour Party has now joined in the fun.

Louise Haigh, Shadow Digital Economy Minister, said:

“Of course we would have liked the government to back 30Mbps for all and I do not accept that millions of consumers and businesses should simply be left behind. This was an opportunity to prepare the UK for the ubiquitous future demanded by the digital revolution and although the Government’s amendment is a first step, it is a baby step and nothing more.”

The Labour party has previously made plenty of noise about wanting to foster a national roll-out of ultrafast FTTP connectivity, which would be supported by a huge injection of public funds. However achieving this, without at the same time distorting market competition (Ofcom is trying very hard to encourage competition at infrastructure level), could be quite tricky. We hope to see more details when their manifesto is published.

In the meantime the UK Government (Conservative) has pledged to keep the broadband USO under review and raise it from 10Mbps once 75% of households have upgraded to a “superfast broadband” service, which could take a very.. very long time. A further public consultation on the detail is expected after next month’s election.

As always when it comes to politics, take the things politicians say with a big pinch of salt until they’re fully costed and put down in a detailed policy paper. Even then some extra salt can still come in handy.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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