Thursday, 5 February 2009

Universal Service Obligations

Some months ago, I supported the idea that the Universal Service Obligation (USO) on BT should be extended from being simply an obligation to provide a basic telephone service to incorporate a broad band service as well. I had quite a debate with one of my anonymous readers as to whether it was fair and reasonable to put such an obligation on BT, or whether this was an issue where the market should provide the basic service, with public subsidy filling the gaps. (S)he made some very good points, but I was not convinced.

I was pleased last week when the government came down very firmly on the side of the argument that broadband access is now a basic service, and are planning to extend the USO so that every home in the UK has at least a 2Mb service by 2012. The timescale is a bit lengthy for my liking, given the rate at which broadband has become the 'norm', but it's a significant step forward.

The response by the Tories was interesting, to say the least. Their main objection seemed to be that the proposed requirement was not onerous enough. For the party which normally objects to any attempt to place obligations or regulations (always dismissed as 'red tape') on business, it was an unusual response. They argued that 2Mb was simply not good enough when the average speed available these days is more like 3.6Mb.

For once, I agree to some extent with the basic point which the Tories ar making (or, perhaps, for once, they are agreeing with me?). My colleague, Adam Price said much the same as they did, drawing attention to Obama's commitment to a 5Mb service for rural America. The problem, I feel, is that the technology, and what is considered 'normal', is moving faster than any legislative process. If we are talking solely about what the USO should be today, then a requirement to provide a basic 2Mb service might well be the right level at which to set things.

But the government are talking about 2012 - for how long would 2Mb minimum still look like the right answer? By the time any USO is imposed, things will have moved further on again, and the result may well be that we are imposing only an obligation to implement obsolete technology.

Perhaps what we really need is a more flexible approach to setting the USO – one that does not need new legislation every time we need to change it. Having to revise the law every time we wish to improve the USO simply means that the minimum will always lag way behind the average or norm.

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