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UK's Universal Service voucher scheme urged to shift monopoly away from BT

Only catch is government would have to stump up the cash

By Kat Hall, 28 Nov 2016

An MP is calling on the UK government to introduce a voucher scheme for universal broadband connectivity of at least 10Mbps, as a means of more effectively boasting rural broadband speeds.

The government plans to mandate a USO target by 2020 in its Digital Economy Bill currently passing through Parliament. However, it emerged last week that BT is the only player to offer its services.

The former state monopoly has offered to roll out 100 per cent 10Mbps connectivity in return for certain regulatory conditions, Ofcom head Sharon White told MPs. She said the regulator would "love" for other providers to come forward.

But Calum Kerr, SNP MP for Berwickshire, will today propose an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill that would introduce a "more flexible" voucher alternative.

Speaking to The Register, he said: "The more I’ve looked at this, the more I can see the outcome it is leading to. It will be a highly prescriptive route, with Ofcom and DCMS following a definite process and giving it to BT, which has already said it will do it for nothing. So the government can hit an objective minimum standard. But I think that is a missed opportunity."

Under a voucher scheme alternative, communities could decide in aggregate whom their preferred supplier would be, with the option of finding providers who are prepared to deliver beyond the minimum 10Mbps.

A subsidised broadband installation voucher scheme is already available for people who cannot access speeds of at least 2Mbps.

In the budget last week, chancellor Phillip Hammond announced a £400m fibre broadband investment pot to deliver speeds of up to 1Gbps.

Kerr pointed out that most of this money is likely to go to urban areas. "So while these announcements were welcome, there was absolutely nothing for rural. Rather than closing the digital divide, the government is cementing it and turning it into a chasm where you've got 1Gbps for urban areas and 10Mbps for rural areas."

He said: "It is absurd to fund broadband expansion up to 95 per cent and not the final part."

Other MPs have also expressed concern about a USO that would further bolster BT's monopoly.

Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for industrial strategy, said the government should weigh the benefits of paying USO providers and having more competition against not paying anything and having BT as the sole provider.

She said: "If the government is going to reduce competition to get ISO for free that is a bad approach."

Industry bodies for smaller network providers are also backing the amendment for a government-paid voucher scheme.

Malcolm Corbett, chief exec of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association, said: "If the vouchers could be aggregated, then that gives people the potential to decide. So you could end up with a situation where locals are taking control over their own area."

Chris Pateman, director of the Federation of Communication Services, agreed. "There is a tendency to start where BT is, which tends to keep everything in BT's court."

The Digital Economy Bill will receive its final reading in the House of Commons this afternoon. ®

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing