UK-wide right to fast broadband moves ahead - but councils warn 60,000 could miss out
LGA tells digital department that cost threshold plan means rural premises could undermine legal guarantee
The government's pledge to give everyone in the UK a legal right to fast broadband inched closer this week - but councils have raised concerns that 60,000 households could still miss out on affordable coverage.
The 2017 Conservative manifesto vowed to bring in a Universal Service Obligation to "ensure that by 2020 every home and business in Britain has access to high speed broadband."
According to industry regulator Ofcom, 4% of UK households - or 1.1 million - are currently unable to access broadband with download speeds of 10Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps.
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The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport this week published its response to a consultation on bringing in the USO, and committed itself to ensuring a minimum download speed of "at least 10Mbps", upload speeds of 1Mbps, and a data cap of "at least 100GB per month" across the UK by 2020.
According to the DCMS, the costs of providing broadband services at those levels under the new law will be met by industry, through a cost-sharing plan to be drawn up by watchdog Ofcom.
However, the government has also decided to introduce a cost threshold of £3,400 per premise for the USO.
That means that while providers will be obliged by law to connect people if costs are under that amount, households and businesses with costs above the threshold will have to pay an excess charge to providers.
That has sparked fears that hard-to-reach rural areas, where broadband coverage is already patchy, could still end up with poor service in spite of the new law.
Council lobby group Local Government Association told the DCMS consultation that while it "recognised the need to balance the costs of provision with wider demands on the public purse", the proposed cost cap "would leave approximately 60,000 premises unserved by the USO".
The LGA argued that "since the majority of these premises would be in rural areas, entire communities may not get
connected", according to the consultation.
In its response, DCMS acknowledged "divergent" views on the cost threshold, and emphasised the need to strike a balance between covering as many premises as possible and ensuring the scheme did not place too heavy a burden on industry - "which it would be
reasonable to assume would be passed on to some degree to consumers".
The department said: "On the one hand, those concerned that consumers and wider communications should get connected argue for a high cost threshold, while on the other those concerned with the impact this will have on the costs of delivering the USO, argue for it to be set at a lower level."
DCMS added that setting the threshold at £3,400 would allow it to reach "99.8% of premises".
However, the plans have already prompted criticism from Tory backbencher Grant Shapps, who chairs the British Infrastructure Group of MPs. He told the Telegraph: “The clue should be in the name. The ‘Universal Service Obligation means you should be able to get it everywhere.
“Residents in rural communities will be left in the internet slow lane causing misery and disappointing for tens of thousands of families.
“The internet is not a nice to have extra essential service – the government needs to make sure it reaches each and every household in Britain today in the same way they would expect to have plumbing and water.”
A DCMS spokesperson told the paper it was "completely wrong to suggest that we are not delivering what we have committed to", adding that "everyone in the UK will have a legal right to highspeed broadband and nobody is going to miss out".
The department pointed to demand aggregation - in which local authorities are expected to play a key role - as a way of ensuring remote areas were covered by the pledge.
"The Universal Service Obligation means that remote rural communities can apply as a group to ensure they are connected without being subject to costs," the spokesperson added.
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