Everyone in the UK will have the legal right to access a 10Mbps broadband service under new plans drawn up by the government.
Prime minister David Cameron said a new universal service obligation (USO) would put broadband access on a par with other key utilities such as water and electricity.
“Access to the internet shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be a right – absolutely fundamental to life in 21st century Britain. That is why I’m announcing a giant leap in my digital mission for Britain,” he said.
“Just as our forebears effectively brought gas, electricity and water to all, we’re going to bring fast broadband to every home and business that wants it.”
A 10Mbps service would be five times that of the current 2Mbps minimum speed, introduced by the coalition government in 2010. The government confirmed to V3 the intention was to only use fixed services to deliver this ambition.
It seems unlikely any legal right to 10Mbps will come into force soon, though, as the government said it would run a consultation on the plans in 2016.
However, it does want it implemented before the end of the parliament, in 2020.
Current government investment in broadband rollouts should ensure 95 percent of the UK is able to access high-speed broadband by 2017, but there have always been concerns that the remaining, hardest to reach areas would remain reliant on basic broadband or even dial-up.
For those living in remote communities with slow or non-existent broadband the plans will no doubt be welcomed, but they throw up a number of questions, chiefly who will pay for deployments?
If an individual, or community, is required to cover the installation costs this could undermine the government’s intention, as often the cost of one-off installations is very high.
Conversely, if internet service providers (ISPs) are required to cover the costs, there could well be legal challenges to the USO on the grounds that it would prove economically unviable to operators.
A government spokesman told V3 that this would be tackled during its consultation next year.
Telecoms analyst Matthew Howett from Ovum told V3 that it was hard to fully gauge the potential impact of the government’s plans.
“The government has been flakey in the past about how broadband will be delivered in the UK and they’re not being very clear with the details on this plan, other than having lofty ambitions," he said.
"There’s a risk this will go the same way, unless they tighten up the definitions of how it will be delivered."
Howett noted, though, that the move could be seen as the government playing its hand in the “wrangle” between Ofcom, BT and the wider telecoms industry regarding the future of Openreach.
“I think this [announcement] plays into the hands of BT because they would be pretty central to this and we know from their pledge a few weeks back they are prepared to do more, but only if they have certainty on the future of Openreach.”
Earlier this year, BT said it wants to provide a new broadband speed minimum of 5-10Mbps for the entire UK, with CEO Gavin Patterson saying this range would be amended in line with government policy and funding.
BT said in a statement that it welcomed the government’s plans but noted again that the right regulatory framework was vital.
“We stand ready to work with government to help deliver faster minimum broadband speeds universally if the authorities make this commercially viable," it said.
“A supportive regulatory environment will be critical in order to make delivery of a faster universal service commercially viable, something we know ministers understand.”
Meanwhile, Matthew Evans, the chief executive of ISP industry group the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), also welcomed the move but said a USO should not be seen as the one and only solution to this issue.
“It is important though that the government views a USO as one of a range of options in this last five percent,” he said.
“More can still be done to drive private investment in digital infrastructure and it is important that this work continues. Any USO would need to be commercially viable for operators and ensure that any impact on competition is limited.”
Nicholas Lansman, the secretary general of the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA), also welcomed the move, but said questions around how the USO would be funded must be answered.
"These include funding, the impact on competition, the existing European regulatory regime around universal service and how this fits with the current government-based rollout."
The plans, if followed through, could well be yet another burden on operators, after the government last week unveiled its draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which would require telecoms firms to store user data on web visits for a year.
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