What’s the deal with the Universal Service Obligation?

The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy. Despite this, across 37 countries studied by OECD, the UK ranked 35th for the percentage of fibre connections in its total fixed broadband infrastructure.

Many have used this research to argue that the UK is seriously falling behind in terms of providing adequate broadband connectivity for its citizens.

As a result, the legally binding, industry funded Universal Service Obligation (USO) has been brought in. But some critics say it’s too little too late, and that the measures don’t go nearly as far enough.

With the government pushing for self-isolation and social distancing, millions of the UK’s working population are now functioning remotely, using the internet to perform their daily tasks.
Photo by Philip Katzenberger

What does Universal Service Obligation mean for the UK?

On 20 March 2020, USO was brought into motion. This means that UK-wide households are now entitled to request ‘effective’ and ‘affordable’ broadband services. Ofcom has said consumers will have to wait up to 12-24 months for connection after a request is submitted.

In order to be eligible, households and businesses must fulfil a certain criteria of requirements.

Individuals and businesses are permitted to request the new broadband services if:

As it stands the government is not implementing a freeze on fees.

Does this new legislation go far enough?

This legislation has been interpreted as a response to Labour’s 2019 campaign pledge to deliver free basic broadband nationwide. This pledge would have seen an additional £15bn added to the Conservative’s proposed £5bn, to form British Broadband.

However, while the UK’s Conservative Party has dubbed this new policy as a ‘digital safety net’, some critics say that many will still be left without an internet connection.

In 2019, ONS found that a whopping 700,000 secondary school students did not have access to the internet from their home. On top of this, 60,000 had no internet access at all. This is concerning considering the increasing digitalisation of primary and secondary education and the development of e-learning.

There are additional criticisms of the legislation, with some claiming that the broadband speeds are not fast enough. Bandwidth targets have not changed since 2015 under David Cameron.

Moreover, currently a third of households in the UK are said to have signal blackspots, or ‘WIFI notspots’ in their homes. This lack of coverage is typically caused by house architecture like thick, concrete walls, seemingly reflecting wider issues within the construction of modern housing.

Speaking about this lack of coverage Paul Stobart, Chief Executive of Zen Internet said: “With WiFi connectivity throughout the home now an expected requirement for modern-day living, it’s unacceptable that families are still struggling to connect to their WiFi in whatever room they want.”

The Conservative government had initially promised full-fibre broadband to all households by 2025. This was later abandoned. It now pledges to ensure that all new homes are giga-bit ready. However one in five new homes are still being built without this.

In 2016, Tratos CEO Maurizo Bragagn said that even if the UK were to invest in broadband infrastructure then, it would be: “Left lagging by up to seven years as it struggles to catch up.” Four years later, there has been little development.

fibre optic lines
Photo by Christopher Burns
Bandwidth targets have not changed since 2015 under David Cameron.

What is happening in light of COVID-19

COVID-19 is currently having a devastating impact worldwide, and shining a light on the many cracks within the UK’s social and economic policies.

With the government pushing for self-isolation and social distancing, millions of the UK’s working population are now functioning remotely, using the internet to perform their daily tasks.

On 18 March it was also announced that all schools in the UK were to be closed indefinitely, and all summer exams cancelled. However the children of ‘key workers’ will still attend.

A total of 25,000 state and private schools in England have been affected, leaving up to 8 million students using remote working apps.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said that internet providers are already seeing ‘signs of stress’. While academics have warned that this will cause an unprecedented strain on the country’s broadband services.

Vodafone has already reported a 50% surge in internet usage since the onset of the virus.

In the wake of COVID-19 American telecommunications conglomerate Comcast, has promised low-income families in the US free access to broadband for 60 days. This will be accompanied by faster speeds.

Dana Strong, Comcast Cable’s President of Consumer Services, said in a statement that this will help families: “Work from home, access educational resources, obtain important government health care alerts, and stay in contact with their families during this difficult time.”

Contrastingly in the UK, internet providers are resisting the same kind of changes to provide the most vulnerable with free internet access.

However, Internet Service Providers’ Association (Ispa) are reportedly in ‘very early’ discussions with the government concerning those who are unable to continue paying broadband bills due to the impacts of COVID-19.

coronavirus message
Photo by Annie Spratt

Final thoughts on the new legislation

The government has hailed the new policy as transformative and highly impactful. However it is evident that families will still be deprived of internet access.

In the rapidly changing technological landscape, the internet is an essential component of daily life. It is vital for both political expression and access to information. Free internet access for those who cannot afford it, is also a chance for more economic prosperity and social mobility.

The new legislation is both diluted and tepid and does not provide equal opportunity for all.

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