So where has the legal 'right' to 10Mbps broadband gone?

Digital infrastructure plans may be disrupted by the EU referendum

Analysis UK Chancellor George Osborne's budget may have provided a sprinkling of sweeteners for businesses and middle class savers alongside the headline-grabbing sugar tax last week, but details on digital infrastructure plans were distinctly lacking.

No mention was made of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) in the 148-page document, which David Cameron promised last year would give everybody the legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum speed of 10Mbps by 2020.

At the moment providers remain in the dark as to whether connecting the last five per cent of the country will be a publicly funded project, much like the previous Broadband UK (BDUK) scheme from 2012.

According to Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, £680m will be spent on providing connectivity to 95 per cent of premises by the end of 2017. Yet, given the budget's radio silence on the USO, it might be reasonable to speculate that if money were to be set aside for the project we'd know about it by now.

One alternative for creating a dedicated pot of cash for the scheme, is the introduction of a levy on providers – although it has been pointed out that this may be unfair for smaller urban-based providers. It is also unclear whether consumers would pick up the bill.

It also remains uncertain what tech will be deployed to reach the final five per cent. Speaking in front of a select committee last week, BT's chief exec Gavin Patterson said that if the company were tasked with providing a "fibre rich deployment" under the USO, it would cost up to £2bn. Such a move would not yield a return on investment for BT, he said, noting that a cheaper option would cost hundreds of millions of pounds and include 4G and satellite broadband.

Certainly a strategy that offers a range of options for connectivity, and – crucially – a range of providers, is one a number of observers seem to favour.

Chair of the Internet Service Providers' Association Chair James Blessing said a number of its providers are already working toward this goal: "ISPA supports the objective of a USO, especially in the hardest to reach areas where commercial rollout is challenging. As we await government’s consultation, it is important that the process is open, technology neutral and does not negatively impact existing networks."

But Labour MP Chi Onwurah, a former head of telecoms technology at Ofcom, warned that the absence of a strategy could lead to a repetition of what she's sees as BDUK's mistake of having one just one supplier responsible for the roll-out.

"We have not yet reached point where everyone has 2Mbps in 2016. Stalling on the USO consultation and pushing it back adds to the confusion around a long-term vision on where we are heading," she said.

Onwurah believes that Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey is too preoccupied with the upcoming referendum on the EU to think about the USO strategy. If the USO is to take the form of a publicly-funded scheme, that would need EU permission to go ahead, under the bloc's state aid laws. Therefore it is also plausible that the strategy may be on hold while we await the possibility of a Brexit.

However, some have noted that the USO is a distraction from what needs to be a far more ambitious plan to improve the UK's digital infrastructure. Dan Lewis, a senior adviser at the Institute of Directors, is calling for speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second by 2030 – although that would not be under a USO.

Lewis believes the key to getting better connectivity is greater market competition, rather than by setting a relatively low USO. To that end, he supports the aims of Ofcom's Digital Communications Review to open up access to BT’s telephone poles and ducts and thereby dominance of the former state-owned telecoms group.

"They have the right vision, but what we need now is more details as to how it will happen. We can't afford to wait," he said. "BT's uncompetitive cost structure for competitors wanting access to its infrastructure should not set the pace at which we move to a digital future."

Until various regulatory and legal decisions are made, it looks like those lacking in decent connectivity will just have to wait for an update on their legal right to 10Mbps. ®

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