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Is it radical to make broadband a legal right?

Is it radical to make broadband a legal right, or is it a missed opportunity to provide decent mobile coverage across the UK?

The recent announcement that from 2020 all homes and businesses in the UK will have a ‘legal right to high-speed broadband’ sounds very impressive. In fact, the number of homes and properties currently unable to access broadband is just over a million – around 4% of all properties in the UK.

Two things strike me about this proposal:

  • With 96% of properties able to get decent broadband signal, is it feasible to reach the final 4% in the next two years?
  • The Universal Service Obligation (USO) gives users the right to request access, not a right to actually receive broadband.

The second point, the right to request, is not the equivalent of the traditional USO which ties provision with a reasonable cost. The key part of the announcement is that the USO gives everyone the right to access broadband at a decent speed, i.e. 10 Mbit/s or more. This right to request access is not tied to any commercial parameters, provisioning or delivery timescales.

For those who do not remember a time before broadband, when all conversations were analogue, the USO referred to a telephone line with an install charge capped at £99 – the equivalent of around £500 at today’s prices.

Cynics will argue that a property miles from civilisation will, in 2020, have the right to access – and service providers will need to offer access. However, it will be subject to cost and delivery times for such access. In extreme cases it could be quite conceivable that even with the ‘right to broadband access’ the costs will be so prohibitive that something as exotic as a satellite data connection could make more economic sense.

It is safe to assume that the 1.1m properties lacking broadband would also have little or no mobile signal, as if there are insufficient users to implement broadband or cable TV there will be little chance of having a mobile mast. Given the advances being promised by the mobile industry for 5G and the proven success of using 4G for data services, I can’t help but feel it would be easier and more pragmatic to implement a USO on the mobile industry rather than setting up BT Openreach as the fall-guy for a scheme with unrealistic timescales and no commercial impetus. I was surprised to learn that O2’s 4G covers at least 98% of the UK population (when indoors) given the ongoing patchy reception on all mobile carriers in my part of outer London. This should result in more than 99% coverage for 4G when outdoors. Whilst this is a licence obligation on O2 other UK mobile operators have indicated they intend to match the 98% coverage.

Despite these obligations, anyone who attends large spectator events – from a concert at Alexandra Palace to a football match at Old Trafford – knows that 4G service effectively disappears as the venue fills up. Spectators at most matches expect to have no data for the first hour of the game and have learned to live with this. However many homes inside the M25 have such poor mobile signal that users have to step outside to make a call – these are not rural areas and are shown to have good 4G service according to the Ofcom mobile and broadband checker. As mobile operators increasingly advocate Wi-Fi calling to overcome lack of mobile signals, the final 4% broadband and 2% of mobile properties lacking decent service will be caught in a Catch-22 as mobile operators suggest using Wi-Fi calling to overcome lack of signal to users in an area with no broadband service.

The nature of networks and the roll-out of fibre to either the premise or the cabinet suggests that it is easier and cheaper for the industry to close the gap in the mobile environment than in broadband networking. As part of providing true national mobile coverage the industry needs to deliver on the coverage it is already claiming to deliver so that more of us can make and receive calls on our mobiles from the warmth and comfort of our homes and offices rather than outside in all weathers.