Broadband News

Universal Service 'Obligation' versus 'Commitment'

The Digital Britain report was much anticipated when it was released in June 2009, and many of the issues got widespread coverage throughout the national press. If you were to survey people among those who have heard of the report possibly the most common point remembered will be recalled as 'we will all have 2Meg connections by 2012'. Alas the detail of the report means reality as the way the report sees it is not that.

The Digital Britain report uses wording such as "Coverage – 2Mbps to virtually every household in the UK (in addition, mobile will have a role to play in providing broadband coverage at different speeds, as set out later in this chapter)." As everyone knows virtually means something close to 100% but not necessarily 100%. This is not a big revelation, as the word virtually was used in the Budget speech in April 2009.

So why this news article today, if nothing has changed? Well Stephen Timms talking at the Parliament and the Internet Conference on Thursday 15th October, was heard to say, and repeat in response to questioning, that the 2Mbps figure should be a 'minimum' basic level of service and an obligation.

The use of the word obligation is important because it carries a very different legal meaning than the word commitment. Commitment is a best efforts affair, but with obligation you are talking of something that everyone should be able to have. It was also suggested that 2 meg should be the starting point, rather than the speed to aim for.

Let's use an example to demonstrate this; if you had an ADSL or wireless service that connects at 2.5Mbps, meeting a 2Mbps obligation or commitment, but over time the connection slows down, e.g. degrading phone line or new properties blocking the wireless signal. Under a 'commitment' providers could simple shrug their shoulders, not unlike what happens now when lines don't support ADSL after repair work. Under an 'obligation' the provider would be obliged to bring your line back up to a 2Mbps connection speed.

How much of a panic Stephen Timms has created in the corridors of power is unclear and only time will tell. The real danger though is that many of the providers who might be bidding for the work could actually prefer a commitment, knowing that an obligation will be harder to service and provide.

A final thought on the Universal Service area, there has been no definition of what is to be expected in terms of minimum throughput, i.e. speeds seen at peak times. Once the procurement group is up and running there will hopefully be a chance to lobby to ensure that USO/USC based connections are not some form of poor man's broadband where contention means that even radio streaming at peak times is difficult.


Well spotted, it has certainly caused a bit of twitter in the web this week. I wonder when the digitalbritain team will clarify? There is a big difference, and if Obligation is the word then BT and co won't be able to use their BET idea. LOL. This could be funny.

  • cyberdoyle
  • over 11 years ago

It must be a minimum throughput obligation or there is little point. It can't be based on the connection speed as wireless systems have large overheads and therefore provide a throughput much less than the connection speed. I.e. 3.6Mbps HSDPA only provides about 1~2Mbps throughput, falling short of 2Mbps most of the time. As for BET well that requires 2 copper loops for 2Mbps and there will be a big problem finding spare lines for that in remote locations many miles away from the exchange.

  • timmay
  • over 11 years ago

It really ought to be a minimum throughput figure. Minimum sync means 1.7Mb throughput maximum which is lousy. I used to say that 2Mb/s was fine but things have moved on and as of late 2009 I think 4Mb/s is the minimum throughput we should be looking at.

I also think that the backhaul and core need to be covered by this. It seems inevitable that consistency is going to be a big issue in the future. It's not good giving everyone 2Mb/s if the per user allocation is 43kb/s. Streaming video is not tolerant of contention.

  • AndrueC
  • over 11 years ago

I'm sure it will remain a commitment, in the same way as the current govt had a manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Who would be obliged to supply if it were an obligation, and is there a legal basis for making it an obligation on a company as opposed to on the state ?

  • herdwick
  • over 11 years ago

I hope he keeps the obligation open long enough to get a costing.

I just noticed on the spectrun auction heist for the 800 Mhtz, they intend a 99% coverage where there a 90% probability that .1% of the population, where that number are online can gain a service of 1.5Mbps service. No quality measures.

That's future scarcity nicely defined and the priority is on maxing the auction fees.

  • mikeblogs
  • over 11 years ago

The email introducing this article was sent out at 10:04 on Monday 26th October. So how can anyone have added a comment 7 days ago?
On the difference between an obligation is something that MUST be met whereas a commitment is an aim to meet the standard but not an absolute requirement. I prefer to have an obligation on ALL service providers to provide a certain agreed standard and supply users with a performance that matches the contracted speeds. If that means maintaining lines properly then that has to be good for all users.

  • michaels_perry
  • over 11 years ago

LOL, michaels try checking the date of the article

  • JDPower
  • over 11 years ago

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