The Digital Economy Bill has many facets to it, but a debate a couple of weeks ago was held in the House of Lords and now the Lords have followed up with amendment to the USO plans which has gone to the vote today and at 250 votes for and 206 votes against there seems an outside chance the USO may change its nature.
1: Clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 4 and 5 and insert—
- (2B) The universal service order must specify that the target for broadband connections and services to be provided before 2020 must have—(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) 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.
- (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.Uncorrected Hansard transcript from House of Lords 22nd February 2017
The amendment seems to be calling for rather than a USO that by being available, rather than on demand as previous Universal Service Obligations have been they want the UK to hit 100% superfast coverage by 2020. Additionally rather than the previous 10 Mbps minimum speed goal, a more ambitious 30 Mbps target for downloads with 6 Mbps upload speeds is favoured. The committed information rate may actually be the hardest part, since if enforced in law would require UK broadband providers to build their core networks such that every customer can download at 10 Mbps at the same time, unless this means just across the access segment as with Openreach GEA products now, where once you reach the ISP you fight for bandwidth as normal.
Ofcom did explore various options for the USO back in 2016, and the House of Lords do discuss this saying 'The economic case for an additional £800 million is extraordinarily well justified' with the £800 million being in addition to a 10 Mbps USO where a slightly better than the bare minimum solution was roughly costed at £1.2 billion.
Those looking at the USO and to date only BT has put its head above the parapet in any official manner were probably hoping to deliver the USO via a mixed technology approach, i.e. some more VDSL2/G.fast maybe using more remote nodes, some fibre to the premises, some 4G, some fixed wireless and for the most expensive maybe satellite. In practice all those technologies can also provide 30 Mbps but you end up having to change the technology mix.
Could the UK deploy 1,160,000 million fibre to the premises connections by 2020, given the money to pay for the labour and a willingness to accept more disruption on rural roads then without a doubt. The big question for the Government if this amendment makes to into law is how to do this without BT (or anyone else who grabs a share of the money) from exploiting the tight timescales, we know BT is planning 2 million premises of pure fibre by 2020 already, but a lot of that looks to be urban where distances are shorter and new build apartment blocks, to deliver to pure fibre to every remote property is a very different task and may see some homes having £30,000 spent to get them superfast broadband when the resident does not even want broadband.
We applaud the ambition of the House of Lords but worry that if the bar is set very high we may end up getting very little, or looking at it another way its signing a blank cheque for BT Group.
The outside in, or inside out approach to the roll-out is potentially a distraction, when what would make more people happy would be if there was a way to prioritise who did get much better broadband, since the USO is not addressing a solely rural problem.