Having been announced in the Queen’s Speech on 18 May 2016, the Digital Economy Bill has been introduced in the House of Commons for a first reading. In the proposed legislation the government said that it would include a range of measures which would, among other things: empower consumers and provide better connectivity so that everyone has access to broadband wherever they live; build a better infrastructure fit for the digital future; and enable better public services using digital technologies.
One of the headline elements of the bill is the proposed introduction of a new Broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) which would give all citizens the legal right to request a 10Mbps broadband connection. While telecoms regulator Ofcom has reportedly claimed that 10Mbps is a suitable speed for a USO for now, given a typical household’s use of digital services, the rate ‘will be increased over time as broadband speeds increase overall’. The reason for the speed of the USO not being on the face of the bill is so it can instead be specified in regulations – this strategy will allow the USO speed to be updated more swiftly when required; the state noted that regulations can be updated in a much shorter timescale than a new bill, the latter of which can take a year before it can be brought into force. The government is said to be moving ahead ‘rapidly’ with the plans to introduce the USO, and Ofcom is expected to publish a technical analysis on the plans in ‘late 2016’, following which the state will consult again on matters including specific requirements and guidance for the USO design, once it has considered the regulator’s analysis.
Other notable elements of the Digital Economy Bill include: new powers for Ofcom to help consumers access better information and enable consumers to act on that information through easier switching; new provisions to ensure that consumers are automatically compensated if things go wrong with their broadband service; new Electronic Communications Code to cut the cost and simplify the building of mobile and superfast broadband infrastructure; new and simpler planning rules for building broadband infrastructure; and new measures to manage radio spectrum to increase the capacity of mobile broadband.
MPs will next consider the Bill at a second reading, the date of which has yet to be announced.