Computer Weekly has run a news item indicating that we may see further developments on the Universal Service Obligation, (or is it a Commitment?). Under the previous Labour Government the USC with a 2Meg target was due to be up and running by 2012, but in July the new Con/Dem alliance announced a delay to 2015. News last week that the European Commission will require basic broadband coverage to everyone by 2013 may have spurred the government back in to action on the USC.
"We are doing everything we can because our broadband policy is one of the most important things that we will be doing, as a Department to contribute to the Government's economic growth strategy. There are 160,000 homes-predominantly in rural and remote areas-that do not have access to broadband at all. There are over 9 million adults who have never used the internet, as compared with 30 million who use it every day. So it is a very important tool of social policy. Before Christmas, we will be announcing a policy that we believe will solve the big question of, first of all, how we deal with the homes that are not able to get access to broadband, or access at reasonable speeds, but will also lay the foundations for the next generation of broadband-superfast broadband-to meet our stated objective that by 2015 we will have the best superfast broadband network in Europe.
The problem really divides into two parts. There is, broadly speaking, the two thirds of the country to which we think the market would provide superfast broadband if the regulatory regime was set up in a smart way. The kind of things we are talking about there are, for example, opening up access to BT's pipes and ducts-something that BT has said that they are happy to do-but also providing regulated access to things like telegraph poles, electricity pylons, water mains, sewers and so on. That is one part of the solution. The other issue that has to be resolved is the third of the country to which we think the market is unlikely to provide superfast broadband. There we will need to find a solution that involves more intervention."RT Hon Jeremy Hunt MP talking to Culture, Media and Sport Committee
Exactly what is to be announced is unclear, it is pretty much a matter of record that BT is planning to reach around two thirds of the UK with its FTTC solution, perhaps with some ten percent of homes enjoying a full fibre to the home solution. Virgin Media already has its fibre/coax hybrid network in place with UK coverage at 50% of homes for next generation broadband.
The disappointment in all this is that the UK has been here before, the Digital Britain report did not appear out of thin air, and a lot of people invested time, effort and money into this, for the USC element now to be largely dismissed. Enthusiasm and assistance for another year or so of repeated consultation and trials is not what people want. What is happening is that we are seeing more community action, particularly as areas of people find out that with some local effort, solutions can be found and without the meddling from central government.
Of course with the new Ka-band satellite service that launches in November a simple 2Meg USC becomes a lot easier, particularly if you subsidise initial hardware purchase. The Ka-band satellites which can support some 70Gbps of traffic is expected to offer packages of 10Meg down and 4Meg up, with better usage allowances than current satellite based products.
What we need to watch for now, is how the government react to the European requirement of basic broadband by 2013 and see if they make changes to their previous target of 2015. A careful eye should also be kept on wording between the use of 'Obligation' and 'Commitment'. The two words are often confused and mixed up, both by politicians and the press. If we were to see an 'Obligation' this would be a much stronger solution as this carries legal requirements to provide a service. The weaker 'Commitment' generally involves best effort type attempts to provide service, with options to miss out the few hundred homes that are just too expensive to cover.
For those wondering where the figure 160,000 homes that cannot get broadband comes from, it is an extrapolation on the 99.6% availability figure that BT quote for DSL based broadband. The reality may be more or less than this figure but until all those homes have tried to get broadband actually working the figures will always be estimates. Similarly the number of households getting 2Mbps or slower are again estimates, though a figure of three million is generally accepted as reasonably correct.
The previous government target date of 2015, of course means that it is possible that another General Election will have taken place, which could lead to further delays made to any commitments.