Calum Kerr, the SNP’s spokesperson on Digital, has demanded “flexibility and ambition” from the government as it prepares for the introduction of a new Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband.
“There’s a real risk that the USO will simply put short-term sticking plasters all over the place, where we need dynamic, future-proofed solutions,” said Mr Kerr.
Mr Kerr, who sits on the Public Bill Committee which is currently scrutinising the UK Government’s Digital Economy Bill, also pointed out that the UK Government’s proposed speed for the USO of 10 megabits per second could quickly become obsolete.
“If this measure is poorly implemented, it could end up cementing the existing digital divide rather than closing it. We can’t simply have a one size fits all approach that sees communities, councils and devolved administrations trying to achieve superfast speeds backed into a corner due to this government’s clear lack of ambition on digital.”
“The Scottish Government have made a commitment to reach 30 megabits by 2021, and a flexible USO—particularly a voucher scheme, rather than a monetary or contractual agreement with providers —could help them to deliver.”
“But if the USO is simply passed over to providers who are willing to provide 10 megabits to everybody by 2020, I am afraid that 10 megabits will be the ceiling rather than the floor,” he added.
Mr Kerr’s call for a flexible regime has already found industry support. David Cullen, Director of Regulation and Policy for ITS Technology Group and Chairman of the Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) has also advocated such a move.
Speaking at the INCA conference alongside the Broadband World Forum last Wednesday, Mr Cullen commented:
“The principle of a Universal Service Obligation is an outdated concept in a sector focused on significant growth and could well translate into a ‘ceiling'.”
“On the other hand a voucher scheme for premises could be far more effective. In fact, Government already has the BDUK Better Broadband Voucher Scheme, which is being used successfully by small and innovative broadband suppliers to transform communities; we should build upon that and promote it more, instead of putting undue focus to the principles of an Obligation."
Mr Kerr voiced particular concern about how the USO would impact on rural communities aspiring for higher quality broadband:
“If we really want universal broadband, we must not have is a scenario whereby, although there is a USO, people in rural areas still end up paying more for a lesser service, which is what we have today.”
“We should be considering how we facilitate a USO that empowers communities to go further. It’s time for the government and regulator to show far more ambition and flexibility in their approach to rural connectivity. We need to put in place measures that won’t see a single rural community left behind.”
“There are opportunities to make a real difference on this matter and I’ll be working relentlessly over the coming weeks and months to make sure that the government adopts the right approach.”