The UK is in the middle of a huge digital upgrade. BT and Openreach are busy digging trenches and constructing masts to deliver the country’s widest and fastest fibre, 4G and 5G networks: the underpinning of future economy.
It’s a plan that represents many billions of pounds of commercial investment. At the same time, however, commercial plans do not extend to every corner of the country. In the most remote parts of the UK the business case for traditional, commercial deployments will not work.
The Government’s Universal Service Obligation is one response to that problem. It means that customers have the right to request a broadband connection in excess of 10mbps, if one didn’t already exist.
BT (and in Hull, KCom) are the designated providers of this service, and there is some encouraging news in its latest progress update. BT is now building connections to around 6,000 homes under the USO. BT is also making it easier for others to join in. The terms of the scheme require customers to fund any connection costs that exceed the £3,400-per-household that BT will contribute.
Rather than requiring the full build costs to be raised up front, BT will now start the work as soon as a single household is willing to pay a share of those costs. BT thinks that should see more fibre reach more people more quickly (although importantly, additional customers will still be expected to contribute their share of the costs before they are connected).
BT hopes the USO can also have a wider benefit – making more people aware of the connectivity they already have and could benefit from. Over time, new technology is creating more options. Ofcom had originally calculated that around 610,000 premises lacked a decent fixed broadband connection.
Now, EE’s 4G network can provide a USO-level service to around two thirds of those households. The growing availability of Fixed Wireless Access broadband across all providers (using mobile networks to create home WiFi) means Ofcom believes there are now fewer than 135,000 premises with speeds below 10Mbs.
All of this means that, for hundreds of thousands of families who have been without great service, things have got a lot better in the past five years. At the same time, we still cannot deliver a good connection to everyone, and the USO – which requires funding contributions from customers – will never be a solution for those communities in the final fraction of the population where build costs can exceed £100,000.
BT remains legally obliged to send out quotes to customers, even when the costs are, frankly, ridiculous. Those costs reflect the economic realities of carrying out complex civil engineering works in remote parts of the country, but it’s no surprise that customers can’t or won’t pay such sizeable amounts.
The Government also recognises this. In a recent call for evidence DCMS said that “it could be prohibitively expensive for the Government to fund fixed line ‘gigabit capable’ infrastructure up to the final 1% of UK premises.” Fresh thinking is required to think through how to connect those for whom even the USO won’t help.