While most consumers are experiencing ever-faster broadband, some are still stuck in the slow lane. That’s why we need the universal service obligation soon, argues Roger Darlington
Can you remember those early, exciting days when you moved from narrowband to broadband for your Internet connection? Instead of having to dial up each time, you were always on and, instead of a speed of as low as 28.8 kbps – kilobits per second – you jumped to at least 128 kbps.
Once we had all learned to love broadband (something between 512 kbps and around 25 Mbps – megabits per second) using a technology called ADSL, we needed faster and faster speeds.
Soon we were talking of fast broadband (around 25-50 Mbps typically using advanced ADSL), then super fast (around 50-100 Mbps typically using fibre to the cabinet) and now ultra fast (around 100-300 Mbps, typically using fibre to the home or co-axial cable).
Data from the regulator Ofcom in November 2017 revealed that average broadband speeds in the UK are increasing significantly.
Over the previous 12 months, average download speeds – how long it takes to download content on your computer or device – rose by 28% to 46.2 Mbps.
Average upload speeds – how long it takes for a file to transfer from your device to the internet – increased by 44% to 6.2 Mbps. The main driver for both was people upgrading to superfast services.
Although superfast services are available to 93% of UK premises, around two in five UK broadband households still subscribe to a standard ADSL service. Standard services averaged around 10 Mbps, whereas average speeds of superfast services were more than 70 Mbps.
Broadband is now an essential utility like water, gas or electricity, but so far nobody has an absolute right to have it, so the government has decided that it is time to introduce a new universal service obligation (USO).
The new USO raises many questions. What speed should it be? Who will provide it? How will it be funded?
In July 2017, the government issued a consultation document on the idea of a broadband USO. In December 2017, it confirmed that it wanted everyone in the country to have access to a download speed of at least 10 Mbps by 2020. In April 2018, it said that the upload speed should be at least 1 Mbps.
Ofcom estimates that currently 1.1-million premises cannot receive the USO specification. By 2020, when the USO will be implemented, the scale of the problem will probably be much smaller on account of the various publicly funded roll-out programmes.
But there will still be a sizable problem and the commitment is to provide the USO wherever the connection cost is less than £3,400.
For many months, BT was in discussion with the now-named Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (formerly DCMS) over an offer to provide a 10 Mbps USO at its own cost, but the agreement broke down because the offer was seen as anti-competitive.
So, in April 2018, the government laid a Statutory Instrument before Parliament, making Ofcom responsible for imposing USO conditions on whoever is designated the universal service provider.
The regulator will need to decide who will contribute to the fund that will pay for the USO and how a provider can recover any unfair net costs. It will need to ensure that the USO service is affordable to consumers and that acceptable quality standards are in place.
Ofcom will issue a consultation document in August 2018 and detailed regulations in 2019, so that by 2020 one or more universal service providers have been designated, giving consumers the right to request a USO connection.
A variety of different technologies could provide the broadband USO: fibre to the premises, fibre to the cabinet, fixed wireless and mobile can all meet the proposed specification but, based on its current capabilities, satellite may not.
So next time you are frustrated because it is taking a while to download a piece of video, remember that some are still in the slow lane and it was not so long ago that we were all there.
- Roger Darlington is a regular contributor to Stage Screen and Radio magazine, specialising in consumer affairs and the communications industry