Broadband universal service obligation set for 2020

6 June 2019   By Dr Lucy Brown, Editor

From March 2020 BT and KCOM will be required to deliver a minimum service of 10Mb to households unable to connect via commercial operators.

The universal service obligation (USO) will ensure everyone in the UK has the right to request a decent broadband connection.

Users will have to directly request broadband under the USO, and their eligibility will be assessed within 30 days.

There are limitations to the USO, however. This includes a price cap of £3,400 for connections to safeguard the industry.

fibre broadband
Credit: Brian A Jackson/

What is the USO?

The idea of a broadband USO has been in discussion for some time and is based on the belief that an internet connection is vital for people living in the modern world.

Every home or business unable to access an existing affordable broadband connection of 10Mb or more is likely to be eligible based on certain factors.

Firstly, when checking the location, BT and KCOM will assess whether another public scheme planned in the following 12 months would bring suitable broadband connections to the area.

The cost of installing a connection under the USO must be no more than £3,400. If it is, the property owner will have the option of covering the difference.

Customers who can only currently access a fixed broadband service which costs over £45 per month will also be eligible for a connection under the USO.

There is one catch though - it could take up to 12 months for KCOM customers and potentially longer for BT customers to receive their connection once a request has been deemed eligible.

Connecting the most isolated

The USO is designed to ensure a basic level of broadband for all, but it's very much a last resort which Ofcom are hoping won't be necessary for most customers.

Their estimate is that 620,000 homes and offices would benefit from the scheme if it was brought in today, providing a safety net for the 2% of properties currently unable to access a 10Mb connection.

For instance, research released by the National Farmers Union (NFU) in January highlighted that 42% of farmers could still only access broadband speeds of 2Mb or under.

However, Ofcom point out that broadband providers are expanding their networks constantly, and that other schemes are available to help boost broadband availability.

One such scheme is Better Broadband, which aims to deliver minimum universal speeds of 2MB by the end of 2019.

While this falls well short of the 10Mb obligation Ofcom are implementing, it's a step in the right direction before the launch of the USO in March 2020.

That launch date has been fixed to allow BT and KCOM time to prepare themselves, but also to consult on which costs should be spread across other providers in the industry.

In October 2017 a group of ISPs including Sky and Hyperoptic threatened legal action against Openreach voluntarily taking on the USO and wanted it to be underpinned by the type of legal framework announced by Ofcom today.

Future of fixed broadband

The notable limitation in the new USO regulations is the cap of £3,400 per household which may deter customers in highly remote areas from applying in case they feel they should contribute and make up the shortfall.

That said, Ofcom point out other options may be available for those customers to receive a decent broadband connection, albeit not one underpinned by the USO.

They specifically mention satellite technology which may be available in the future, but there is also the significant possibility 5G could provide an alternative to fixed broadband connections.

Again, however, this is one for the future as 5G is only being rolled out gradually to the largest cities and towns, with full coverage set to take some time yet.

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