UK Gov turns down BT’s £600m rural broadband offer

The UK Government has finally revealed its plans to connect the unconnected, as it turns down BT’s bold plans in favour of a universal service obligation (USO) which puts the power in the hands of the consumer.

The new plans will effectively give consumers the right to demand a broadband connection which would deliver download speeds of 10 Mbps by 2020, irrelevant as to where they are based in the UK. Such regulation is built on the same lines as rules dictating practices in the fixed-line business. BT has been lobbying hard against craving such ideas into stone, though its alternative idea has finally been shot down.

“We know how important broadband is to homes and businesses and we want everyone to benefit from a fast and reliable connection,” said Culture Secretary Karen Bradley

“We are grateful to BT for their proposal but have decided that only a regulatory approach will make high speed broadband a reality for everyone in the UK, regardless of where they live or work. This is all part of our work on ensuring that Britain’s telecoms infrastructure is fit for the future and will continue to deliver the connectivity that consumers need in the digital age.”

BT’s alternative idea was to provide a commitment to connect, which was full of hedging terms but would be funded through private investment. Not having the government bank account raided would certainly have been considered a plus for the government, as would BT’s claim it could start work as soon as the idea was accepted, though there were no guarantees consumer bills would not be raised to recoup the investment, or whether fibre would actually be used.

By introducing the USO, those in the countryside are likely to be waiting longer for the increased speeds, though regulation does give the government more opportunity to dictate the state of play in the industry. There is also a nice little bonus of avoiding the courts, following legal threats from the likes of Sky and TalkTalk should the BT proposal be accepted.

The rules will be drafted next year, though it won’t be too long before consumers can start badgering BT for a 10 Mbps connection. Some MPs have been arguing these speeds are still too low, but logic prevails; the rule makers have decided to listen to Ofcom’s opinions over those of self-accredited politicians. Ofcom has deemed 10 Mbps as the minimum speed required to fully utilise the internet for work and play, though the minimum speed requirements will be increased as time passes.

The work is expected to take two years to complete, once the secondary legislation is drafted, which should ensure the government meets its promise of 10 Mbps by 2020. That said, we are sceptical. Any new laws would have to be passed through the political web of checks and balances, with the risk of being tied up in red tape very high. In a perfect world, the government could fulfil the promises, but when politicians are involved everything slows to a snail’s pace.

Overall, this isn’t a bad move to be made by the UK government, even if it is not recognising the realistic complexities of getting new regulations through the sticky web. BT has not shown any genuine commitment to those in rural communities to date, and should not be trusted to do so on its own accord. It isn’t as profitable to connect farmers, when hipsters need to pay for deconstructed coffee with their smartphone. Sometimes telcos need to be nudged in the right direction.

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