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Plans to improve access to broadband and boost 5G connectivity set out by the UK government

A new universal right to access "high speed" broadband services is to be introduced into law in the UK, the government has announced.21 Dec 2017

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) confirmed that it would press ahead with introducing a universal service obligation (USO) for broadband after deciding against taking up an offer from BT to deliver universal broadband access to properties across the country in a voluntary fashion.

DCMS opened a consultation in the summer on how a USO for broadband could be designed, building on an earlier report by Ofcom, the UK's telecoms regulator. At the time DCMS said it was considering the USO alongside the counter-offer made by BT. It has now confirmed that the design for a legal right to high speed broadband would be set out in secondary legislation early next year alongside its "detailed response" to its earlier consultation.

Under the regulatory USO that the government had proposed, property owners would have rights to access broadband services with minimum download speeds of 10Mbps. "Additional quality parameters" would also be mandated, including minimum upload speeds of 1Mbps, restrictions on the sharing of bandwith across customers, a duty to minimise delays in the transmission of data over the broadband networks, and a requirement to allow customers to download at least 100GBs of data every month under the service on offer.

At the time, the government said it was open to the use of a range of technologies, including fibre to the cabinet, fibre to the home and fixed wireless, 4G and satellite, to deliver the USO. It said providers subject to the regime would only be obliged to make their services available to premises where the cost of doing so was "reasonable" and where premises do not already have access to a broadband service "which meets the USO specification".

In its latest statement, DCMS said Ofcom's implementation of the new USO is likely to take two years from the point at which the secondary legislation is published. The USO is therefore likely to be effective by 2020, it said.

Culture secretary Karen Bradley said: "We know how important broadband is to homes and businesses and we want everyone to benefit from a fast and reliable connection. We are grateful to BT for their proposal but have decided that only a regulatory approach will make high speed broadband a reality for everyone in the UK, regardless of where they live or work."

"This is all part of our work on ensuring that Britain’s telecoms infrastructure is fit for the future and will continue to deliver the connectivity that consumers need in the digital age," she said.

DCMS separately published an update to the UK's 5G strategy, first outlined earlier this year.

The update confirmed that the operators of a new UK 5G Innovation Network have been selected. The Network will "facilitate the engagement and coordination of organisations working on 5G activities across the UK", it said.

The updated 5G strategy (23-page / 864KB PDF) also contained details of the government's previously announced plans to provide for 5G connectivity within the UK roads and rail networks, as well as its latest plans on freeing up spectrum to support 5G services.

DCMS said that a new cross-government task force had also been established "to drive changes to make it easier for digital infrastructure to be rolled out".

A draft revised National Planning Policy Framework scheduled for publication in early 2018 will also provide detail about how local planning authorities will be expected to "have planning policies setting out how high quality digital infrastructure will be delivered in their area, and accessible from a range of providers", it said.

A new 'call for views' was also opened by the government on the topic of its 5G testbeds and trials programme (18-page / 252KB PDF). The views gathered will be used to inform "the appropriate scale and scope of deployment pilots", it said. Views are also sought on "the timescales over which they should be delivered, the amount of funding contribution which would be appropriate, and the method by which funding should be allocated", it said. Views can be submitted up until 24 January 2018.

A further call for evidence (10-page / 200KB PDF) was also opened by DCMS on its future telecoms infrastructure review. The terms of reference for the review were published in late November. The government hopes the review can lead on to greater investment from telecoms companies into new telecoms infrastructure, such as 'full fibre' and 5G networks.

The call for evidence, which is open until 30 January 2018, is designed to inform the government's understanding on "what market or policy interventions might support long term investment in the next generation of telecoms infrastructure (primarily next generation mobile technologies and full fibre networks), and what consequences such interventions could have on competitive dynamics, markets and consumers", DCMS said.

"Alongside this call for evidence, DCMS is commissioning research to inform the review," the department said. "The research will cover international comparisons and their applicability to the UK market, the relationship between market structures and investment patterns, and the mechanisms that could further promote efficient investment."

A report from the review is due to be submitted to the government in the summer of 2018.