The Queen yesterday announced the UK government’s legislation for the year ahead at the state opening of Parliament, revealing details of the planned Digital Economy Bill. With the planned legislation’s purpose said to ‘make the UK a world leader in digital provision’, the government has claimed the main benefits will include: enabling the construction of world-class digital infrastructure including fast broadband and mobile networks; and delivering on the government’s manifesto pledge to roll out universal broadband and better mobile phone connections, ‘to ensure everyone is part of the digital economy’.
One of the core elements of the bill is the introduction of a new Broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO), giving all citizens and businesses the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed. This will work similarly to the current landline telephone USO, while there will be a reasonable cost threshold above which the most remote properties may be expected to contribute to the cost of installation. In terms of access speeds, the government expects the minimum downlink rate to be at least 10Mbps initially, though the Bill will also include a power to direct telecoms regulator Ofcom to review the speed over time to make sure it is still sufficient ‘for modern life’.
Alongside the USO plans, the Bill will also provide for a new Electronic Communications Code (ECC), designed to cut the cost and simplify the building of mobile and superfast broadband infrastructure. Specifically, there will be new and simpler planning rules for building broadband infrastructure. According to the government, the changes to the ECC are expected to result in more than GBP1 billion (USD1.45 billion) of savings for the communications sector over a 20-year period, with these hopefully being passed onto consumers.
Plans to empower consumers have also been detailed; the Bill is to implement a new power for Ofcom to order communications providers to release data – such as customer complaints and broadband speeds – in the interests of the consumer and competition. It has been claimed that such information should give consumers clear household level information about broadband speeds from different providers, helping them make informed choices. Further, new measures designed to make switching providers easier will be introduced, with communications companies required to coordinate switches on behalf of customers; such a setup would mean consumers only have to deal with their new provider in order to switch. Finally, there will be a new right for consumers entitling them to automatic compensation when things go wrong with their broadband service.