Digital Economy Minister tells broadband parliamentary debate that it wont be held to a ‘piddling’ 5Mbps European target
The UK Government has given its strongest indication yet that the universal service obligation (USO) for broadband could be increased to 10Mbps in a wide-ranging parliamentary debate on the subject.
The current USO is 2Mbps, but analysts suggest broadband users need at least 10Mbps to make the most of the Internet, while Ofcom has suggested increasing the ‘universal service obligation’ to that speed.
Even the previous coalition government’s budget in March suggested 5Mbps would become the new standard.
Universal service obligation
“It is no secret that we are looking at a universal service obligation, and we will not be tied to some piddling European target of 5Mbps,” said Ed Vaizey, Minister for the Digital Economy, said near the conclusion of the debate. “No, when we look at a universal service obligation we will look at a British universal service obligation to deliver the kind of British broadband speeds that British citizens and businesses require.
The debate had been secured by Matt Warman, former technology editor of The Telegraph and recently-elected Conservative MP for Boston and Skegness, who has called for a ‘notspot summit’ to address the coverage and service issues many MPs say are affecting their constituents. He also thinks 5Mbps is too slow as a new USO.
“The current 2Mbps must be raised, but to raise that dribble to a mere trickle of 5Mbps is not enough when 10Mbps should be regarded as the minimum,” he said. “We must accept that some parts of the country will exceed the minimum by much more than others and therefore set the minimum as high as is practically possible. I for one would like Ofcom to consider whether the current definition of superfast broadband could be that minimum.”
BT has recently pledged to increase the minimum speed on the Openreach network to either 5Mbps or 10Mbps – depending on what the government decides – using new technologies like long reach VDSL that boosts speeds on long copper lines and wireless to the cabinet, as well as a new satellite broadband service which will be launched in some parts of the UK by the end of the year. BT will also migrate some users off old ADSL1 technology onto ADSL2 and fibre.
MPs complained about a myriad of issues, including coverage, affordability, lack of transparency from BT and local authorities about rollout and fears of a digital divide. Some said the government made a mistake handing almost all the public money available under the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) scheme to BT, claiming it had reduced competition and meant the use of Fibre to the Premise (FTTP) had been limited.
Vaizey denied claims he was ‘cosying’ up to BT and defended his view that he was sceptical about the argument for the separation of Openreach – the headline aspect of Ofcom’s once-in-a-decade review of the UK communications market.
“I remind [MPs] that the reason BT bid [BDUK contracts] and that Virgin, for example, did not was that the state aid conditions required open access,” he said. “Therefore, only companies that were prepared to see their networks used by their competitors were going to bid for the contracts. That is why BT was the only bidder in town.”
Warman, who is also chair of the all-party parliamentary group on broadband and digital communication, added that he was also unsure as to whether BT and Openreach should be separated, but did call for greater regulation.
“I admit that I do not know whether the roll-out would be better if BT were to be split up as a company,” he said. “I am certain, though, that regulation needs to be simpler and more rigorous however the company ends up, because we must promote more competition. I am also certain that Ofcom’s assessment of what is best must be absolutely robust so that whatever decision is reached is not a matter of perpetual debate. I urge the regulator to consider all possible options now.
“Some argue that splitting up BT would delay this vital roll-out unnecessarily. I would say that we should not put our principles before a vital national infrastructure project, and that if any delay would harm businesses and families, Ofcom should assess what the impact of breaking up BT might be in the short term.”
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