Search This Blog

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Broadband USO on the horizon?

I questioned yesterday the wisdom of removing the USO and pondered on whether we would see telcos failing to repair broken lines etc in areas where they no longer had an obligation to supply a service. It seems that this assumption, that it was a removal rather than a replacement, may have been a tad uninformed/negative as ThinkBroadband and El Reg are reporting that Lord Carter is expected to introduce a broadband USO of up to 2Mbps.

There are going to be mixed reactions on this.

Firstly, "up to 2Mbps" connectivity (I struggle to call it broadband) has been on offer for almost a decade. As is being proven amongst consumers, for many this "maximum requirement" of 2Mbps is already insufficient for today's surfing habits, let alone more exciting activities online.

The existing USO was put in place in 1984. Should this replacement be in place for a similar length of time, one can see that "up to 2Mbps" may prove more than just frustrating for those who have to rely on the USO to get broadband access in 2009, let alone 2030 and beyond. There is a huge difference between what is required to be able to make a phone call and having "functional internet access" which is what the current USO states - one can assume the new USO will have similar wording.

The present USO states that this functional internet access should be " least 28.8kbps" but in my experience of dealing with those in notspots and areas with poor lines etc, that would be a dream connection speed, which implies that for a percentage of the population the current USO has failed. However, even if you can get 28.8kbps, it is totally useless for internet banking, Youtube, submitting DEFRA forms etc.

And we have seen the ISPs approach to "up to 2Mbps". If true data were available on the actual connection speed of those where there is no 8Mbps+ broadband, (which inevitably skews the results on a national average) I suspect we would find that many people in the UK are suffering dire connection speeds of well under 512kbps download. If this were to continue under the new USO, we will find that many people would remain in a disadvantaged position and unable to do anything about it because the ISPS are interpreting the USO to the letter rather than within the spirit.

Really, that USO should insist on the 1984 definition of broadband, "2Mbps+ symmetrical capable of carrying voice, video and date simultaneously". Put the bar back where it was 20+ years ago, rather than continually lowering it. Cater for the consumers rather than the providers. And think long-term...what legacy does 'up to 2Mbps' leave to our kids??

Were this 2Mbps+ approach to be taken, it would assist in achieving the recently cited aim (see this week's posts) to make next gen access available to all, because it is obviously more sensible and cost-effective to put in a solution which will be in place for 20+ years eg fibre, rather than wireless or bonding aged copper. It would mean that communities where there were known connectivity issues (for instance, see the Notspot report and map ABC produced 4 years ago and which urgently needs updating for the benefits of UK Plc) could work with the providers in putting in FTTH on a mutual basis, thereby reducing costs, creating local jobs, and giving everyone a share of the FiWi Pie (more on this concept another day).

Secondly, although there has been plenty of noise about false and misleading claims in advertising by the ISPs about what they can actually deliver to any particular customer, (didn't you read the small print on the bottom of the TV screen from the other side of the room?) little has been done to prevent mis-selling by the ISPs to consumers. Yes, Ofcom have made attempts to prevent it with a voluntary code of conduct last year, but it hasn't prevented many customers feeling 'cheated' when the all-singing, all-dancing broadband service they have purchased on a 12, 18 or even 24 month contract actually hums tunelessly and only permits them to limp rather than tango around the Net.

Meanwhile, should you suffer from a poor service, the complaints procedure at Ofcom is stifled under a website equivalent of "Press 1 for...., Press 2 for.....please hold....." and then recommends only that you make an official complaint to the company concerned. Rather than Ofcom, who after all have a statutory requirement to "further the interests of citizens", having procedures in place which assist the citizen to make and resolve their complaint swiftly.

After all, under the current system, if a consumer gets lost within a corporate complaints system and finally gives up, there is no record of this with the regulator. Therefore, should there be a constant stream of complaints about a particular company or acquiring connectivity in a particular area, the regulator is a) unaware of the scale of the problem and hence b) not in a position to do anything about it, c) to apply pressure to the ISP to mend its ways, or d) to generate a map of known notspots around the UK. This knowing where the notspots are is absolutely vital if any successful intervention is to take place now and in the future.

Most consumers, unsurprisingly, have better things to do with their time than to spend hours on hold to a customer's complaints department at their own expense, when they could just cut their losses, and spend those hours and their hard-earned cash trying to find a new, better provider.

One can see how making it feasible for operators to provide a minimum service even by today's standards under a new USO could well lead to a proportion of those needing broadband connectivity feeling more than just under-served. And hence the digital divide could (or may, inevitably) widen.

On the other side, it is possible that forcing ISPs (whether mobile/wireless or wired) to have to connect users could see a growth in rural connectivity. But, it needs to be said, that unless there is a HIE (as referred to yesterday) approach to the problem, with the regulator and ISPs sharing info on where the problem sites and notspots occur, and then sharing infrastructure costs to solve the issues and offer consumers CHOICE, it could boil down to consumers' being quoted ridiculous prices for connectivity because that ISP doesn't want the hassle or expense of trying to connect someone in the far reaches of Outer Cumbria. (A job sadly not done with the £20million Project Access was given for the task).

At this point, would someone care to step in and point out the pros of the proposed broadband USO as I seem to have lost sight of what they might be?!

1 comment:

GuyJ said...

Perhaps the clue is in the O

Obligation implies burden - something to be reluctantly offered and a cost to recover

The supposed burden is upon the incumbent telco today and the proposition simply perpetuates this reasoning by introducing the (£22B) licenced cellular incumbents into the picture too.

From the community consumer point of view it would better be USG - Universal Service Guarantee

Considered that way... where is the burden again?