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Lords send broadband plan back to Government



Chamber declares that Universal Service Obligation should be for 30Mbps by 2020

The House of Lords has thrown out the Government’s flagship plans to boost broadband speeds in hard-to-reach areas, branding them “tinkering without success”. 

Peers passed an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill to compel ministers to set more ambitious rules for its new Universal Service Obligation (USO).

Under plans first set out by David Cameron, there will be a legal right to demand fast broadband as an essential utility on the same footing as electricity and water. But the USO’s minimum broadband speed would be only 10 Mbps - far short of the 24Mbps that qualifies as ‘superfast’.

Now the amendment passed by the Lords would require the USO to specify download speeds of 30Mbps by 2020 for every household in the UK.

The cost would be £2 billion – compared with the £1.1 billion bill for the 10Mbps USO – according to calculations done by watchdog Ofcom, peers were told.

EU breach

Culture Minister Lord Ashton of Hyde told the Lords the USO was about setting a minimum standard, adding the amendment could breach EU directives.

He pleaded with peers, saying: “The USO is a safety net to prevent social and economic inclusion, not a statement of ambition. We are setting the minimum – not the maximum.”

But Labour's spokesman Lord Mendelsohn argued the 10Mbps minimum speed would be “unfit for usage in a very short time”.

He said: “Whilst the Government has introduced measures to try and move policy along, and some have been very interesting and innovative, the very introduction of the Universal Service Obligation is an acknowledgement that they have not worked.

“Without the elements in this amendment, the bill will add to that list of tinkering without success.”

Liberal Democrat Lord Fox said: “We are some distance from world class, and the objective of this amendment is to help move us along that road.”

Lord Mitchell, a non-affiliated peer, added: “I felt so terribly frustrated by the lack of ambition in the Government's requirements, and what they're putting forward. Gigabytes should be king.”

Conservative frustration

The amended bill must now go back to the Commons, where many Conservative MPs in rural areas share the peers’ frustration about relatively slow broadband speeds.

The amendments also require the Government to include mobile coverage in the remit of its USO.

Last year, the Government abandoned plans to deliver superfast broadband to the “final 5%” of the country on the basis that the 10Mbps USO was sufficient.

Ministers ruled out a multi-million pound programme to connect around 1 million premises that are set to miss out, arguing it would not “represent value for money”. But implementation remains on course for superfast speeds to be available to 95% of the UK by the end of this year.

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