We live in a world where ever more of what we see, communicate and interact with is done online. With business meetings, banking, shopping, booking doctor’s appointments, on-demand TV and so on, a reliable digital connection is not just something that’s nice to have – it’s literally essential.
The Government is aware of the need for fit-for-purpose broadband and that it should be accessible to all. Policies such as the Universal Service Obligation (USO) have been put in place in an attempt to ensure good digital connectivity across the UK. The idea behind the creation of the USO was for it to be a digital safety net, allowing those UK citizens not currently receiving the national minimum standard of broadband running at 10Mbps via their landlines to demand a service delivering at least that basic level of performance. Sadly, it is simply failing to achieve its goal, with three major issues preventing it from delivering on its objectives, namely, public awareness, timescales and cost.
The challenges that the USO faces
The latest report from BT on the progress of the USO showed that there were only 2,500 USO requests from March to September in 2022. This is despite the fact that according to Ofcom there are over 80,000 properties specifically eligible for the scheme and over 500,000 experiencing speeds below the national minimum standard of 10Mbps from their fixed line broadband service.
One cause for the low amount of USO requests is due to a widespread lack of public awareness. Our recent study shows that two thirds (63%) of broadband users in the UK simply don’t know they are entitled to demand access to a broadband service delivering download speeds of 10Mbps+. This lack of visibility makes it difficult for the programme to be successful, preventing it from assisting homes and businesses facing severe digital disadvantage and from effectively closing the Digital Divide.
On top of this, the time that it takes for USO applications to be processed is another reason why so few premises are being provisioned with what Ofcom terms as ‘decent broadband’ under its auspices. BT’s own published figures reveal that in the six months to the end of September 2022, it had received just under 2,500 requests to deliver improved broadband under the USO. However, only 937 of these were deemed as eligible and only 8% of the requests made by broadband-starved customers eventually resulted in a confirmed order.
However, by far the biggest problem behind the failure of the USO to deliver any meaningful progress towards its self-set objectives is very much cost-related. Under the USO, even if an application is found to be eligible, if the costs of provisioning improved broadband to that property exceed £3,400, applicants are then obliged to pay any difference themselves, if they choose to place an order. As these excess costs very regularly run into tens of thousands of pounds if not more, it is hardly surprising that the USO is showing such a low take-up and proving to be such an ineffectual safety net.
Those who currently have the slowest landline broadband speeds are almost certain to live in places where it will be much more difficult, take far longer, and cost significantly more to provide them with faster broadband. This means that those individuals, businesses and communities that are the most digitally impoverished and who are therefore in the greatest need are simply excluded from being able to benefit from the USO. Thus the bitterly ironic conclusion is that the USO is more liable to increase, rather than close the Digital Divide.
As we enter uncertain times, requiring individuals to pay sums that go into many thousands of pounds simply in order to be able to access broadband meeting the national minimum standard is frankly unacceptable. Since April 2022, 20% of the confirmed USO orders that were placed required the applicant to contribute towards costs. No data is available as to how many applicants chose not to go ahead because of the substantial additional costs they themselves would have to cover, but that number is expected to be significant.
As the Government continues to invest into digital infrastructure, if it is serious about ‘Levelling Up’ it must look to alternative broadband delivery technologies to get more people connected in the most time- and cost-efficient way.
Using alternative broadband solutions to broaden digital connectivity
Other than the USO, the Government’s sole focus is on overseeing the roll-out of full fibre solutions, with the goal of its Project Gigabit policy being to deliver fibre to the premises for 85% of UK properties by the end of 2025. Deploying full fibre is both time-consuming and costly, so just as before, the 15% of properties that will not benefit are those that are harder to reach and again, those most in need because they have the poorest current levels of connectivity. The UK’s 500,000+ broadband-starved homes and businesses would be far better served by leveraging alternatives to fibre-based broadband delivery methods that can be put into place nigh on immediately and extremely cost-effectively.
Using alternative technologies to close the Digital Divide much more quickly and efficiently is sheer common sense and would immediately transform connectivity in genuinely life-changing ways for the most digitally disadvantaged communities. For example, it is already possible to implement solutions such as 4G-delivered broadband in the UK for mere fractions of the cost and time of upgrading or deploying new landline infrastructure. There is no doubt that incrementally investing in alternative broadband solutions would speed up the overall deployment of fit-for-purpose connectivity for all across the entire UK.
It is important to bear in mind that enhancing the UK’s total ‘connectedness’ has major economic and social benefits. Studies have shown that there are direct links between improved connectivity and economic growth, with overall productivity and employment opportunities rising in tandem. This is especially true for rural areas, where making access to high-quality broadband available can halt and indeed entirely reverse the creeping problem of rural decay.
This is why the Government must broaden its thinking and get out of its solely fibre-centric mindset. It is illogical – and some would say bordering on unethical – for the Government to spend many hundreds of millions under Project Gigabit providing full fibre connections to those who already have perfectly good broadband connections, while simultaneously leaving the most digitally deprived behind. There are a number of alternative broadband delivery methods already available, but the immediate benefits that leveraging these would deliver to the nation as a whole are simply not being taken into account. Nevertheless, solutions to dramatically improve digital connectivity across the nation in a much quicker and more cost-effective manner exist today. It’s time they are taken advantage of and put to full use.