For many people the Digital Economy Bill was thought to be a piece of legislation that would layout who and how the Universal Service Commitment (USC) would work, but to perhaps many peoples surprise the USC is not part of the bill. The funding of the Final Third Project to get Next Generation Broadband to the areas of the UK that the commercial firms will not venture was always going to be part of the Finance Bill due to the need for legislation to introduce a tax raising regime.
So where does the USC stand? Well for one that USC is NOT about giving everyone 2Meg download speeds but rather 'to ensure, through a Universal Service Commitment (USC) that virtually every household in the UK can get access to a line capable of delivering at least 2Mbps'. The word virtually was in the original report but often ignored, it is there so that the difficult areas can be provisioned with something more economically viable. It is important to be aware it is talking of a line that can manage 2Meg, not sustain 2Meg at peak times, or put another way, the many people who complain on our broadband Not-Spot mapping system of slow throughput even though connected at 2Meg or faster will not benefit from the USC. The money to pay for the work required to meet the USC will be from the surplus funds in the Digital Switchover money pot, which is thought to be around £200m. Two hundred million sounds a lot, but if one accepts that there are 166,000 properties unable to get broadband in the UK, which is a figure often mentioned, this works out at just £1200 per property.
Given the spread out nature of many broadband black holes, we think people should be prepared to accept satellite broadband services, or the under trial 'BET' (Broadband Enabling Technology) system from Openreach. Where a cluster of five or six properties exist with no broadband, then more advanced possibly even next generation systems may be possible, particularly if the homeowners/businesses are willing to pay something towards the install fee.
While 2Mbps can be considered fit for online banking and access to e-gov services, the increasing amount of video available for purchase online means people with 2Meg lines will feel like second class broadband citizens. In four years time we may find that operating system updates occupy an hour or two a day on a 2Mbps line (Microsoft Windows service packs can already weigh in at 200 to 400MB in size).
The USC was an opportunity to take the already world leading broadband coverage in the UK, and put the UK in a position that would stop people worrying about the state of broadband access when relocating a home or business. As things stand now, it is impossible for us to say who people will go to to ask questions about the USC, or exactly what the options will be for people. In theory, this information should emerge very soon if the USC is meant to be completed by 2012, but the reality is that we will probably see the mechanisms in place in 2011 ready for 2012 and those with no broadband benefiting possibly in time for the 2012 Olympics.