USO could lay ground to access for everyone, but a shrinking pot for new infrastructure extension prompts fears that not all will be able to receive superfast connections
Ministers are preparing to announce whether broadband internet will become a legal right – even in the most remote parts of the country.
A universal service obligation (USO) – ruled out only three years ago – has been under consideration for many months, to ensure that all homes and businesses have access to broadband. Under an idea floated earlier this year, residents and businesses would gain the right to compel telecoms companies to install a broadband line to their home or office.
Now Ed Vaizey, the broadband minister, has revealed that a decision will be revealed around the time of the Chancellor’s crucial spending review on November 25.
But a USO may not satisfy the growing frustration of many countryside MPs that their constituents continue to miss out on the superfast speeds available in many urban areas.
The government’s digital communications infrastructure strategy, published in March, suggested only a speed no slower than 5Mbps would be required. This is barely one fifth of the 24Mbps normally taken to qualify as a “superfast” connection.
Government funded work carried out by BT is on course to bring superfast broadband to 95% of UK premises by 2017, ministers have claimed. But uncertainty surrounds how the final 5% will be reached, with a pot of only £10m set aside to exploit new technologies to deliver superfast speeds to everybody.
Town halls have protested that they are unable to pursue plugging the gaps because BT has refused to allow them to release details of blackspots to potential rivals.
In the Commons, Vaizey told MPs: “It is our intention to get to 100%, in effect, by the end of this Parliament.”
The minister said: “We are looking at a whole range of solutions. There might be a voucher solution, or a fund that companies can bill into. And yes, it is no secret that a universal service obligation is under consideration.
“We hope to announce our proposals towards the end of the year, to coincide with the spending review.
Vaizey said his department continued to “keep BT’s feet to the fire”, with the company required to respond to any complaints raised by any MP.
In a separate written parliamentary answer, he said any USO would “have to comply with the European Universal Service Directive”.