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On March 28, 2018, the UK government published the design for the new universal service obligation (USO), following an earlier consultation. It will be implemented by 2020 and will see that everyone in the UK has the legal right to request broadband connections with download speeds of 10Mbps.

The broadband USO minimum speed will need to be reviewed periodically to ensure it reflects technological capabilities

By May 2017, 3.3% of premises in the UK still did not have access to broadband with 10Mbps speeds, the minimum speed outlined by Ofcom as being sufficient to allow multiple users to simultaneously use the internet, including web browsing, video streaming, video calling, and gaming. A new bill (Digital Economy Act 2017) aims to rectify this as it contains a commitment to implement a new broadband USO that ensures ubiquitous access to broadband with download speeds of 10Mbps initially, which will be reviewed periodically. According to the Act, the first review of the minimum speed will take place at least as soon as 75% of UK premises take up broadband with speeds of 30Mbps.

On March 28, 2018, the UK government announced the design of the USO including the following: a minimum download speed of 10Mbps; a 1Mbps minimum upload speed, minimum standards for latency, a maximum contention ratio of 50:1, and a minimum data cap of 100GB per month; universal pricing, so that people connected under the USO do not pay more for their broadband than others pay for comparable services in non-USO areas; and a cost threshold of £3,400 per premise. This threshold enables coverage to around 99.8% of premises and for the remaining 0.2% where delivering a USO capable service costs more than £3,400 for a single property, consumers will have the choice to pay the difference or opt for satellite broadband. More generally though, the government has outlined that the USO should be delivered using any technology apart from satellite (due to limits on capabilities), including fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP), fiber-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), fixed-wireless, and mobile technologies.

Traditionally, universal service obligations in most countries including the UK have centered on fixed voice capabilities and only functional internet connections. Increasingly, governments and regulators are recognizing that a well-developed broadband infrastructure is essential to people's everyday lives and have been exploring the possibility of including broadband in their USOs. In the UK, as demand for greater data volumes has been increasing and average connection speeds have been improving, the argument has grown for introducing a broadband USO, which better reflects today’s technological capabilities. So far, any countries that have already introduced a broadband USO have generally set targets at fairly low speeds. However, a few countries have adopted targets that are more ambitious than the UK, such as the US (25Mbps from 2016) and Ireland (30Mbps from 2017).

Ofcom has been given up to two years to assign a universal service provider (USP) to implement the obligation. The current USP is BT, but some smaller market players have already expressed interest in becoming USPs to deliver this broadband obligation. While there is no public funding available for the broadband USO, Ofcom will be responsible for creating an industry fund and the regulator’s “Connected Nations” reports will be used to monitor and report the progress of the USO rollout. The importance of setting a funding definition should not be underestimated here. Merely setting coverage targets without ensuring sufficient funds are available to cover the installation fees and the higher monthly costs will not be enough.


Further reading

Universal Service Obligations for Broadband,TE0007-001038 (August 2016)

UK (Country Regulation Overview),GLB005-000029 (March 2018)

"The UK finalizes a USO for broadband target of 10Mbps in Digital Economy Bill," TE0007-001147 (May 2017)


Sarah McBride, Analyst, Regulation

[email protected]