Why Ofcom’s USO is more than pie in the sky

photo of a blue sky looking up through cylindrical structure

Thursday, 18 July, 2019

In many UK households, the prospect of high-speed broadband is little more than pie in the sky.

The cables and connections piping connectivity into our homes are often unfit for purpose, dating back to a time when phone lines were intended purely to carry voice communications.

News that Ofcom has confirmed an implementation date for its long-awaited new Universal Service Obligation suggests sluggish connections are finally being taken seriously.

But have you got more chance of seeing a UFO than seeing any benefits from the Ofcom USO, when it comes into effect next March?

USOK?

The Ofcom USO has been a long time in the making.

It forms part of a pledge by the UK Government to roll out a universal broadband service to every corner of the UK.

Ofcom’s contribution to this ambitious national plan should bring cheer to anyone who’s currently forced to endure life in the information superhighway’s slow lane.

Every UK household will have the legal right to a reliable and affordable broadband connection, at a minimum speed.

This has been set at 10Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads, reflecting the fact we’re far more likely to consume existing digital content than to create and publish our own.

Over a quarter of UK households and small businesses are presently enduring speeds below those outlined in the Ofcom USO.

Where line speeds aren’t meeting these minimum criteria, residents will be able to request an upgrade to their broadband service.

If a publicly-funded scheme isn’t already in the pipeline – so to speak – assistance should be offered to ensure their property receives a USO-compatible connection.

(It’s worth noting that those publicly-funded schemes don’t have to be in place by March 2020, but they must be less than a year away from completion by then).

Who is responsible for this?

In most of the UK, BT must ensure connections meet the minimum performance standards stipulated in the Ofcom USO.

The only exception involves East Yorkshire, where KCOM’s unique monopoly on landline and cable services puts them in charge.

Both firms are expected to have systems in place by the 20th of March next year, ready to accept enquiries from homeowners and tenants whose connection speeds fall below the USO.

BT and KCOM will have 30 days to investigate each request and evaluate whether any state-funded infrastructure upgrades are imminent.

If not, they will be tasked with setting up a suitably fast connection, paying the first £3,400 of any incurred costs.

Anything over this becomes the responsibility of the customer – though in reality, few connections are expected to cost more than three and a half grand to complete.

Once a connection has been established, monthly costs ought to be comparable to those offered to customers who already enjoy rapid broadband connectivity.

Who is likely to benefit?

Residents in urban areas can sometimes pick from a combination of Openreach infrastructure and full fibre cabling from firms like Virgin Media, Hyperoptic and Vodafone.

The beneficiaries of Ofcom’s new USO will almost exclusively live in rural areas, miles from their nearest exchange where copper phone lines still dominate.

In these locations, streaming media or online gaming might be unrealistic ambitions at the moment. Homes on the UK’s slowest street have download speeds averaging just 0.14Mbps.

It’s been estimated over 600,000 homes and small businesses could benefit from Ofcom’s new universal service obligation – and not before time.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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