Lord Mendelsohn, shadow minister for business, energy and industrial strategy and shadow minister for international trade, has slammed the broadband universal service obligation (USO) contained in the Digital Economy Act – which allows anybody in the country to request and receive a 10Mbps connection – as “risible”.
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Mendelsohn introduced an amendment calling for a 30Mbps USO while the Digital Economy Bill was making its way through the House of Lords in February 2017. At the time, he said the economic case for providing the extra money this increase would require was “extraordinarily well justified” and the Lords approved his amendment by 250 votes to 206.
However, in the wash-up period immediately before parliament was dissolved ahead of the 8 June general election, the amendment was struck down by MPs in favour of the original 10Mbps option, which falls far below the accepted definition of superfast broadband.
“We had to concede defeat and it is a decision I sometimes regret,” Mendelsohn told the audience during a keynote at the Total Telecoms Connected Britain conference in London. He remarked that if circumstances had been different, it might have been worth holding up the passage of the bill.
“We are deeply, deeply concerned that the UK government’s ambitions are too weak and we are falling backwards,” said Mendelsohn.
He noted legal objections put forward to the proposed 30Mbps USO from, among others, the government and communications provider Virgin Media, but said he found their arguments “wholly unconvincing and without merit”.
However, speaking at the same event, Clive Selley, CEO of Openreach, said that in contrast to Mendelsohn, he was “not overly worried” about whether the initial target was 10Mbps or 30Mbps.
“We just need to get on with delivering more footprint to areas where broadband speeds are simply not good enough,” he said.
“I am a big believer that this country needs full digital inclusion. We can change lives and we can preserve rural communities if we give them great broadband. I’m very, very pleased to engage with our regulator and government on how we can contribute big time to the USO.”
One innovation that Openreach believes will be useful when it comes to the USO is long-reach very-high bit rate digital subscriber lines (VDSL), which work by extending the frequency range currently used by regular VDSL services down into bands that propagate further along a copper line.
VDSL is currently viable over local loops of about 2km, said Selley, but the long-reach version could boost this by a further 2km.
Simon Pillsbury, director of regulation at TalkTalk, said that however the USO was designed, it was important to avoid the impression of backroom deals done in “smoke-filled rooms” with all the money going to Openreach, as was the case with the first phase of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project.
“It [the USO] needs to be opened up to a wide range of infrastructure providers across the country who can best address what is required,” said Pillsbury. “It is important to make sure there is clarity and transparency around the USO.”
Alex Blowers, head of regulatory affairs at CityFibre, added: “It is now the right time to start looking at the competition model we have and saying: is there scope in that to make the USO contestable?”