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.