UK Rural Group Calls For Broadband Universal Service Obligation

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Only a universal service obligation can save rural communities

A rural lobby group has called for a universal service obligation (USO) for broadband in the UK, which would require providers to offer fast Internet access service everywhere. Unless service is made mandatory, the government will miss its target of broadband for all by 2015.

The government’s promise that the whole population will have access to at least 2Mbps broadband by 2015 is “unlikely” to be fulfilled, and should be replaced by a binding USO, said the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), in a paper which also criticised the lack of competition for the government-supported BDUK (Broadband Delivery UK) contracts to lay fibre in rural areas.

Universal service a lifeline?

harry cotterell cla broadband

“It is unlikely that the Government’s objective for Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015 will be realised,” said Harry Cotterell, president of the CLA. “So, we are calling on the Government to step up and agree to a Universal Service Obligation rather than just a Commitment. There is no legal sanction behind a Universal Service Commitment – it provides the Government with a get-out clause if the benchmark is not achieved, and it is very unlikely it will be achieved by 2015.”

Around 15 to 20 percent of the country still does not have the government target of 2Mbps broadband, says CLA. As well as calling for a binding Obligation to provide broadband, it criticises BDUK, the organisation dishing out £530 million of government money to beef up rural broadband coverage.

“Originally, there were nine infrastructure providers wishing to be considered as preferred bidders when the procurement process began in earnest,” said the Association paper, Broadband Fit for Rural Growth, “Because of the bureaucratic structure put in place by BDUK, there are now only two preferred bidders – BT and Fujitsu. This appears to reduce significantly the element of competition in the bidding process. Indeed, all of the contracts awarded so far by local authorities have been won by BT.”

The CLA doesn’t blame BT or Fujitsu, pointing the finger at BDUK, saying “the CLA is not surprised that the framework
is being investigated by the EU authorities as potentially anti-competitive.” Because of all this, the tendering process could be delayed till March 2013 at the earliest, it complains.

Ofcom has reviewed its Universal Service Obligation several times, and concluded there are difficulties in implementing an obligation without distorting the market: would each area have a USO with a different provider, for instance?

Back in 2006, after a consultation in 2005,  it concluded that there was “no case” for including broadband in the Obligation. Narrowband (dial-up) broadband is included by default along with fixed-line phones, which BT (and Kingston Communications in Hull) are required to provide – although they do have the right to charge householders in inaccessible locations if the price of getting a phone line to their house is over £3400.

“Until a fixed-line broadband infrastructure is put in place, other technologies must be used to bridge the rural/urban digital divide,” said Cotterell. “The CLA advocates a “patchwork-quilt” model whereby other technologies, such as Wi-Fi and satellite become widely available and used. But the Government must create the right conditions for this happen.”

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