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BT best provider for 10Mbps USO, says former digi minister Ed Vaizey

Any regrets on the pro-BT stance? Nah

BT's Openreach is the internet provider best placed to deliver the government's plan for a Universal Service Obligation (USO) of 10Mbps by the end of the decade, former digital minister Ed Vaizey has said.

Speaking to The Register, Vaizey said: "I think if you want the most effective, quickest and likely-to-be-delivered solution, it should be Openreach delivering it without a subsidy from the government."

This week, Ofcom published its response to a consultation calling for input on how the USO should be delivered. It revealed that many service providers do not want to take on the job.

The regulator has suggested it could be funded using public money, a levy on industry, or a combination of the two. The Internet Service Providers Association warned a USO could lead to rising consumer prices and potential market distortions.

However, Vaizey reckons Blighty will have around 97-98 per cent super-fast broadband coverage by the end of the decade "because of the widely derided broadband programme."

He said: "We will probably get the very hardest-to-reach areas by satellite coverage. Which is not obviously ideal, but it can deliver effective Wi-Fi. It was initially slow and we have had problems with that scheme. But I think it is going to improve.

"So in effect you are potentially left with 600,000 customers and I think BT can afford to and is willing to make that investment. There are one or two regulatory obstacles they would like clarity [on] from Ofcom – which I think Ofcom should give them," Vaizey says.

Vaizey was the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries for six years, and was responsible for the government's superfast broadband programme and the USO. He was sacked last month following the appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister.

During that time he was often accused of being too much of an apologist for BT's Openreach. In hindsight, should he have taken a tougher stance on what is arguably a monopoly looking out for its own interests?

"No. I am 100 per cent supportive of my stance and I have become even more so in the past few weeks. In the last week, Google announced that building infrastructure is more difficult than it thought. It set up to build fibre network to cities in the US, but said it will discontinue to do that because it was not economical.

"So if you take a step back, that is one of the largest companies in the world saying building digital infrastructure requires a large upfront investment."

Vaizey believes that conclusion justifies BT's approach. "They have built in cities where they will get a return on investment, just as Virgin Media has.

"People don't build in rural areas because it is more expensive and you have fewer customers. That was why the government had to step in and subsidise it, and BT was the only one who was prepared to work with us."

He also believes BT is right to sweat its copper asserts rather than solely concentrate on fibre-to-the-premise roll-outs.

"I always had to contend with utterly ridiculous people who were obsessed by this debate and said everyone should have 100Mbps. Well, that is rubbish. Most people using broadband as normal want the speeds we were delivering: 24Mbps.

"I grant you that in 5-10 years time most people will want 100Mbps. But what BT has done is incremental."

He says that unlike other countries in Europe that have more FTTP, we do not have swathes of the population without superfast broadband. "You have to make that tradeoff, and we have. And I make no apologies for that. We as near as damn it now have 95 per cent coverage. And that is a huge achievement." ®

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