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March 2020: When you lucky, lucky Brits will have a legal right to a minimum of... 10Mbps

And only if it doesn't cost too much

By Max Smolaks

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Brit comms regulator Ofcom has revealed that the universal broadband service – previously known as the universal service obligation – will come into effect in March 2020.

Under its rules, eligible homes and businesses will have a legal right to demand at least 10Mbps download, and 1Mbps upload speeds from their ISPs – as long as their ISPs are either BT or KCOM.

There's also a price requirement: this "affordable" package should cost no more than £45. For comparison, the same money will buy you 1Gbps in Singapore.

The funny thing is that the universal service obligation has been in the works since at least 2015, and the bandwidth targets have remained the same for four(!) years. 10Mbps was the figure pledged by David Cameron long before the horrors of Brexit. The UK has become one of the first countries to launch a 5G network – but the broadband target remains at 10Mbps.

"As standards rise to include HD and 4K video and a growing number of smart devices on home networks, 10Mbps will not be fast enough for long," Steve Beeching, UK managing director for government systems at Viasat, told El Reg in an email. Viasat was among the companies bidding for the USO contract, but did not satisfy Ofcom's criteria.

"Even with a 'universal broadband service', rural users could be limited to a second-class internet connection," he added. "This two-tier problem will have ongoing effects on education, opportunity and investment, creating a vicious circle where the gap between haves and have-nots keeps expanding."

Ofcom notes that speed requirements "will be reviewed over time, as the amount of data people use changes", but considering the speed at which the government is tackling this problem, don't expect a review any time soon. The comms regulator estimates that there are 620,000 homes and offices in the UK that would benefit from universal broadband service – or around 2 per cent of all connected properties.

The scheme will only apply to eligible customers that can't get reasonably fast, affordable broadband, and are not due to be connected by a publicly funded scheme within 12 months.

Here's how it will actually work: after a request is made, BT or KCOM will have 30 days to confirm that the property is underserved by ISPs.

Once eligibility has been confirmed, they must put the connection in place "as quickly as possible", with the government covering up to £3,400 of the cost of providing a connection. If the required work costs more than that, customers can either pay the additional costs or seek "an alternative solution" like satellite broadband.

Alternatively, they can join other people in their area to make a communal request, which can dramatically reduce the cost of wiring up individual properties. ®

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