What is the Broadband USO implemented by the Government, and how is it supporting digital connectivity?

In today’s world, digital connectivity is essential. The Government understands the critical need for access to reliable broadband. It has implemented policies such as the Universal Service Obligation (USO) to provide all properties in the UK with a vitally important digital safety net. The USO gives those properties unable to access a landline broadband service meeting the national minimum broadband standard of 10 Mbps download speeds the legal right to demand a service that at least reaches those performance levels. Sadly, it is simply failing to achieve its objectives.

This is due to three core issues; far too many digitally deprived homes and businesses are simply not aware of the USO’s existence, the process of provisioning improved broadband under it takes far too long and most significantly of all, it’s all too often unreasonably costly.

What challenges does the USO face?

According to Ofcom, there are over 500,000 UK premises that experience speeds below the national minimum standard of 10Mbps via fixed-line broadband. It is, therefore, shocking to see that in the latest report from BT, only 2,500 USO requests were made from March to September 2022. This highlights a clear lack of public awareness of the scheme. In fact, our recent study shows that 63% of broadband users in the UK were unaware that they are entitled to demand access to download speeds of 10Mbps+. This is a significant barrier to any scheme’s success, preventing it from helping those most digitally deprived and truly closing the Digital Divide.

Another challenge the USO faces is the time it takes to process the applications for the scheme. Again analysing the latest data provided by BT on the USO’s progress, of the 2,500 requests to deliver improved broadband under the USO, only 937 of those requests were deemed eligible. Moreover, only 8% of those requests resulted in a confirmed order. This left 2,300 homes unable to connect, and have to look into alternative broadband options.

As well-intentioned as the USO scheme may be, its biggest issue revolves around the costs faced by those attempting to get improved broadband under its auspices. The USO’s terms state that if the cost of provisioning improved broadband to any eligible requesting property exceeds £3,400, the customer must pay any difference if an order is placed. As these excess costs very regularly run into tens of thousands of pounds, if not more, it is hardly surprising that the USO is showing such a low take-up and proving to be such an ineffective safety net for the most digitally deprived.

Communities, homes and businesses with the worst current landline broadband speeds are those most in need

Communities, homes and businesses with the worst current landline broadband speeds are those most in need of effective and realistic help when it comes to being enabled to access good quality connectivity. It remains a matter of bitter irony that they are also bound to be in locations that are more difficult, more time-consuming and especially more expensive to provision with improved landline broadband. Therefore, they are excluded on cost grounds from benefitting from the USO.

As the UK enters uncertain times, imposing high levels of extra cost on people to enable them to access broadband above the national minimum standard is particularly concerning. As such, it is equally worrying that since April this year, 20% of the total confirmed USO orders actually placed by eligible applicants have required a customer to contribute towards costs. Unfortunately, we have been unable to get data on the number of requests made under the USO, which has not led to orders being placed because of a sky-high cost contribution being required from the applicant. Still, it is more than reasonable to assume this is a significant number.

It is time for the Government to think again about how best to digitally ‘Level Up’ the nation. Suppose nationwide digital equality is a genuine goal. In that case, serious questions have to be raised about whether existing policies and budget allocations against such are efficient and inclusive and whether these truly prioritise those most in need.

The way forward is to also take advantage of alternative broadband solutions

The problem with the Government’s current approach is that it is entirely fibre-centric. Unfortunately, installing fibre broadband in more remote locations is not only majorly time-consuming but also has huge cost implications. This is why the Government should also be looking to leverage inexpensive alternative broadband delivery technologies that are available now and so that can be implemented almost immediately at a fraction of the per-premises cost of any fibre-based solution.

Taking this common-sense step would have an immediate beneficial effect on poorly connected properties

Taking this common-sense step would have an immediate beneficial effect on poorly connected properties, bridging the Digital Divide at a far more effective pace. Solutions such as 4G-delivered broadband are widely available across the UK and are deployable far more time and cost-effectively than upgrading landline infrastructure. Investing in alternative solutions to significantly accelerate the rollout of reliable broadband connections across the UK would deliver much improved social and economic outcomes for those communities currently left behind in the digital slow lane.

The Government has to think beyond the tunnel vision of its solely fibre-centric approach, which seeks to deliver gigabit-capable connectivity to 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025. All well and good, one might think – but firstly, most properties set to benefit from the current policy already have perfectly good broadband speeds. Secondly, what about the remaining 15%, which includes those premises with the worst current connectivity? By redeploying just a small part of its current budgeted investment and utilising alternative broadband delivery technologies that are already available, dramatic improvements in digital connectivity across the country would be provided in a far quicker, far more cost-effective way, far fairer fashion. Doing so would help those hundreds of thousands of primarily rural households and businesses still suffering with unusably slow broadband.


Written by David Hennell, Business Development Director, National Broadband


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