Lords’ demand for 30Mbps service obligation falls foul of rush to get Digital Economy Act through before general election
A push by peers to secure much faster broadband speeds in hard-to-reach areas has fallen victim to the general election.
A 2020 deadline for the beefed up universal service obligation (USO) to be introduced has also been dropped, after Parliament was wound up three years early.
In February, the House of Lords threw out the Government’s flagship plans for the USO, branding them “tinkering without success”, by passing an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill. They demanded the USO specify minimum download speeds of 30Mbps – three times the 10 Mbps pledged by ministers.
The amendment would also have legally required the USO to come into force by 2020, a date set out only as an aspiration by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
It set the stage for a battle in the Commons, where many Conservative MPs in rural areas share the peers’ frustration about relatively slow broadband speeds.
But the Lords gave way in order to secure the passage of the Digital Economy Bill before the election. It is also designed to tackle spam email, nuisance calls, ticket touts and to protect children from online pornography.
Lord Fox, for the Liberal Democrats, said hopes of creating “a really revolutionary revolution for our digital network to enable the whole country to participate in the digital economy” had been jeopardised.
“Without a requirement for a fast digital delivery, and a date for the arrival of that fast digital network, we will struggle,” he warned.
The DCMS had insisted the requirement for 30 Mbps was not legally enforceable because of surprisingly low take-up of superfast broadband so far. Although just under 93% of premises could tap into superfast speeds, only around 30% have done so – making it impossible to argue it must be universal, officials have claimed.
The amended act now states that communications watchdog Ofcom must carry out a review of the requirements of the USO once take-up reaches 75%, which could take 10 years on current trends. Also, it no longer states that the USO must be in place by 2020, although – subject to the coming Conservative manifesto – that remains the Government’s intention.
Lord Fox added: “We are closing the door on a fresh, shiny new bill which still smells of new paint, but - just as with my house - I cannot help thinking that we will be raising the floorboards on this issue time and again in parliaments to come.”
Ofcom has said that 1.4 million homes and businesses are still not connected to a “standard” broadband line of 10Mbps.
Rows over a minimum speed threatened to delay progress as BT was unwilling to start planning how to increase broadband services until it had certainty over what was required.