Out-Law News 2 min. read

Ofcom begins work on broadband universal service obligation

Ofcom is seeking input from broadband providers and industry stakeholders on how a new broadband universal service obligation (USO) should be designed.

The regulator has been asked to submit a report to the UK government containing "technical analysis and recommendations to support the design of the USO" before the end of 2016 and has issued a call for inputs (14-page / 91KB PDF) to businesses to help inform its work. Responses are invited by 23 June.

"We are seeking views from consumers and industry to inform our analysis of the options for designing and implementing the broadband USO," Ofcom said in its consultation paper. "Responses to this call for inputs will inform recommendations we put to government."

"We are requesting input from stakeholders on the following six areas: specification and scope of the USO; demand for the USO; cost, proportionality and efficiency of the USO; the universal service provider or providers; funding of the USO and potential market distortions; and review of the USO," it said.

Culture secretary John Whittingdale said the government is "considering options for legislation" (2-page / 160KB PDF) and has asked for a progress report from Ofcom by 14 August on the work it has now begun on its analysis and recommendations on the USO.

The government outlined its intention to introduce a broadband USO in November last year. At the time it said that homes and businesses across the UK will have a "legal right to request a connection to broadband with speeds of 10 Mbps, no matter where they live", by the end of the current parliament in 2020.

The existing USO for internet access requires that the public is given access to internet services at speeds of at least 28.8 Kbps, which is equivalent to a basic dial-up connection.

In a document published in February containing its initial conclusions from its digital communications review, Ofcom explained that it would help the government implement the new broadband USO. It said it would expect the initial USO of 10 Mbps to rise over time.

"We will look to ensure that there can be competition to provide the USO, with the right technology deployed for local circumstances," Ofcom said in its February paper. "This could involve a mix of fixed and wireless technologies to deliver the service. The broadband universal service must also build on existing commercial and community networks, rather than displacing them."

In its new call for inputs Ofcom said it is keen for industry feedback on how the new USO should account for technical performance issues beyond merely the minimum download speed.

"Other factors will also affect how ‘decent’ a consumer’s or business’s broadband connection is," Ofcom said. "These may include upload speed, latency, jitter, contention and capacity. We are interested in stakeholders’ views on the minimum download speed for a broadband USO, as well as which other aspects of technical performance should be specified, and at what level. We recognise that a variety of technologies, including wireless, are capable of delivering download speeds of 10 Mbps. We aim to encourage the deployment of the most appropriate technology for different local circumstances so as to achieve the goals of the USO in the most efficient way."

Telecoms expert Reg Dhanjal of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "The cloud, social media and video calls are being used more and more by consumers and businesses and these services rely heavily on upload speeds as well as download speeds. So it is not surprising that Ofcom is seeking views on technical performance measures such as upload speeds in addition to download speeds."

The regulator said it also wants to hear industry views on how the broadband USO should be funded, how services can be made affordable to consumers and businesses, and whether "a social tariff" should apply to "benefit … those on low incomes or with special social needs", among other issues.

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