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November 28, 2016

Digital Economy bill: Is the 10 Mbps broadband USO enough for UK households and businesses?

Will a 10 Mbps broadband USO succeed in bringing people into the digital economy?

By Alexander Sword

One of the longest-standing commitments in the UK Digital Economy bill, which is expected to pass through the House of Commons on 28 November, is to provide everybody in the country with a guaranteed minimum downstream broadband speed of 10 Mbps by 2020.

Whether the Government and the private sector will be able to make this happen is one thing, but a more important question is perhaps whether a universal service obligation (USO) of 10 Mbps is a high enough commitment.

The average speed per household is already considerably above this at around 28 Mbps. However, this is skewed by much higher speeds in urban areas which tends to obscure the poor service experienced by broadband users in areas that are not viable to serve commercially for private sector broadband operators. These citizens may experience speeds far lower than this.

It is this problem that the USO aims to address; but is it ambitious enough to do so?


Rural areas often have broadband speeds significantly below the UK average.

There is actually already a USO in the UK, set in the early 2000s in the days of dial-up, of 28.8 Kbps. This seems absurdly low now, and shows how far behind technological advances the USO has fallen, as well as how quickly it has done so.

According to Ofcom’s most recent infrastructure report, the regulator still believes that 10 Mbps is adequate for UK households.

However, it is worth noting that this report is now a year old as it was published at the end of 2015, and by 2020 demand may have changed significantly.

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Cisco expects IP traffic in the UK to nearly triple between 2015 and 2020, with the average British internet user set to burn through 93.9GB of traffic per month in 2020 compared to 40GB per month in 2015.

Due to increasing usage, then, by 2020 the same speed may not be adequate.

The Digital Economy bill will require Ofcom to update the commitment regularly if circumstances change, which will hopefully prevent the USO from falling so drastically behind actual usage figures.

For small businesses, which may be based in poorly served areas of the country, the USO at its current level may struggle to fill demand.

According to a report by the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), the median premise demand for broadband amongst small businesses in 2015 was 5 Mbps, which will rise to 8.2 Mbps in 2025. However, by definition a median means that half of users would be unsatisfied with the figure.

The figures for the 95th percentile demand (at which 95 percent of small businesses are satisfied) are 13 Mbps and 41.1 Mbps respectively.

Whether the 10 Mbps USO will be enough, especially by 2020, is unclear. However, what is more important than the specific figure is that it is regularly reviewed to ensure it is adequate.

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