Homes and businesses will have legal right to demand high-speed broadband by 2020

More than a million homes and businesses will have the right to demand an upgrade to fast broadband after the government rejected a proposal from BT to improve internet speeds for 99 per cent of people in rural areas.

Ministers have instead announced today that a regulatory universal service obligation (USO) will deliver high-speed broadband from 2020. The government has promised the whole of the UK will have access to speeds of at least 10Mbps by 2020 with the USO offering “certainty”.

Culture secretary Karen Bradley said: “We know how important broadband is to homes and businesses and we want everyone to benefit from a fast and reliable connection. We are grateful to BT for their proposal but have decided that only a regulatory approach will make high speed broadband a reality for everyone in the UK, regardless of where they live or work. This is all part of our work on ensuring that Britain’s telecoms infrastructure is fit for the future and will continue to deliver the connectivity that consumers need in the digital age.” 

Ofcom earlier this month that 4% of UK premises (approximately 1.1m) could not access broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps. Britain also falls behind most of Europe in providing fibre to the home which guarantees the fastest speeds available. Today’s announcement comes days just after the chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission, Lord Adonis, said mobile phone and broadband services needed “radical improvement”.

Adonis has welcomed the government’s plans for a new USO to give residents and businesses access to better broadband services. A USO is something the NIC has pushed ministers for over an extended period of time and in June its introduction was one of 12 infrastructure priorities identified as needing urgent attention. “I’m pleased to see the government taking action which will give people a legal right to minimum speeds by 2020,” Adonis said. “But in the meantime, there are communities suffering poor broadband and mobile services now that need help – which is why I’ve written to Ofcom urging them to work urgently with Government to find some immediate solutions to this pressing issue. Our forthcoming National Infrastructure Assessment – the first of its kind for our country – will also look at the longer-term investments needed as our demands for ever-greater speeds continues.” 

BT has responded by saying it "respected" the government decision. A spokesperson added: “BT and Openreach want to get on with the job of making decent broadband available to everyone in the UK so we’ll continue to explore the commercial options for bringing faster speeds to those parts of the country which are hardest-to-reach."

The regulatory approach is claimed to bring a number of other advantages for the consumer:

  • The minimum speed of connection can be increased over time as consumers’ connectivity requirements evolve
  • It provides for greater enforcement to help ensure households and businesses do get connected
  • The scheme will maximise the provision of fixed line connections in the hardest to reach areas.
  • Places a legal requirement for high speed broadband to be provided to anyone requesting it, subject to a cost threshold

Broadband provider and rival to BT, TalkTalk, has hailed the government’s decision. Chief executive Tristia Harrison added: “Broadband is increasingly a utility and it is critical that all of society has fast, affordable access. By opting for formal regulation rather than weaker promises, ministers are guaranteeing consumers will get the minimum speeds they need at a price they can afford.”

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