The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications launched a call for evidence on Superfast Broadband and the Country Land & Business Association (CLA) has taken the opportunity to highlight the need for a Universal Service Obligation to help close the digital divide in rural areas.
"The Government is moving more of its services online and has even recognised that broadband is essential to the economic well-being of rural areas. However, there is no legal requirement for the Government to deliver the basic two Mbps speed that many rural businesses currently struggle to receive.
The CLA's submission to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications makes it clear that the rural-urban digital divide needs to be closed as soon as possible. Rural businesses have the potential to act as a dynamo for economic growth but they must be given the same tools as urban businesses to do the job."CLA President Harry Cotterell
The current situation in the UK is that there will be a 2 Mbps Universal Service Commitment in place for 2015, as part of the BDUK led Superfast Broadband roll-outs. With solutions such as BET, Fixed Wireless, 4G and satellite services being used in the hardest to reach areas. A USC carries no legal obligation, so if a local authority decides that a property in its area, e.g. a lone property 4 miles from the nearest other property that is in the shadow of a large hill (i.e. no visibility of the Ku and Ka band satellites) they are not obliged to provide a service.
A Universal Service Obligation contains a legal requirement, and currently the only one governing internet access is the basic telephone USO, which only applies to BT (and KC in the Hull area) where they must provide a telephone to a property for the standard fixed installation price (~£120) so long as the cost to the company is under £3500. If the estimated cost to install a service to a property is above this £3500 threshold then BT would inform the customer of the likely cost, and in some cases remote businesses have paid £30,000 to get a phone line installed under the USO. The phone line needs only provide a basic 28 Kilo bits per second functional internet access service.
A Universal Service Obligation for broadband is more complex, as the BDUK projects are meant to stimulate commercial roll-outs, and forcing an obligation could scare away potential bidders, particularly if a threshold similar to the phone £3500 figure is imposed. If a USO is implemented, then the most likely implementation solution will be satellite access, which while less than perfect is adequate for most business needs, and certainly should allow rural farmers to file the mountains of e-forms they have to do.
Another danger of an imposed obligation is that it may weaken the ability for areas to push superfast services further into the last 10% of properties, as the obligation to service the final 0.1% will eat a disproportionate amount of money. So while a Universal Service Obligation is a great idea, the concern centres around where will the money come from to fund it, and who will get saddled with the obligation?