The policitics of the Universal Service Obligation
Minister of State Ed Vaizey MP sat before a DCMS committee three weeks ago and discussed the USO and future roll-outs three weeks ago and now a great many media outlets are covering this via their political editors, and its sometimes not clear whether the resident tech journalist has had any chance to sanity check pieces appearing.
Headlines are worded variously but plans for high speed internet being dropped, Government renegades on promises, no superfast broadband for rural areas and similar eye catching headlines are getting the attention of readers and to be frank may be giving a very wrong impression of the realities.
A lot hinges around the idea the USO consultation documents and while these sorts of documents often give hints about the eventual delivery of whatever is being discussed they are not legally binding yet, they are discussion documents. As things stand local authorities are meant to be working towards superfast coverage of 95% by the end of 2017 and most are on course, Devon and Somerset are lagging due to no phase 2 contract being signed yet but that is a different matter to the USO.
What we appear to be seeing is the fall-out from a minister being honest and not sugar coating statements, and those who have followed telecoms and broadband closely since the 1990's should be well versed in knowing that things like Universal Service Obligations are usually on-demand and carry a cost cap, e.g. the telephone USO has a cap of £3,400 above which Openreach will send an estimate for the work and you can decide to go ahead. We have always expected something similar for a broadband USO, though it may work differently e.g. satellite broadband should only cost a couple of hundred pounds to install for 99.999% of premises in the UK, but could cost a lot more for a handful of uniquely located homes and workplaces. That said we are sure many would prefer a terrestrial or fixed line broadband solution and this is where the costs become more variable and spending £10,000 to allow one person to get online becomes difficult to justify.
The belief is and it is just that since it takes time to roll-out broadband (unless you through a lot more money at employing people temporarily) is that the UK will overshoot the 95% target with access to 24 Mbps and faster and finish at around 96%. The question to all the political parties is how much money is available to totally ensure that all the final 4% can get 10 Mbps and faster and remember this is not just at the national level, there is nothing stopping individual local authorities from reaching for the golden goal of 100% superfast broadband coverage, other than the small matter of who pays for it.