The Government's broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) should include a social tariff to ensure a basic service of at least 10Mbps is available at an affordable price to those most in need, councils say today.
Introducing such a measure would mean all households connected via the USO would have the option to receive a subsidised broadband service should they face undue hardship in paying a market rate, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils in England and Wales.
BT already provides a basic subsidised BT telephony and broadband package to its qualifying customers. The LGA believes that a similar offer should be provided by any supplier/s that would deliver the USO. This would mean that people who qualify for a basic reduced service would be able to request a connection of at least 10Mbps at an affordable cost should their current package not be up to speed. The call forms part of the LGA's submission to the Government ahead of the Autumn Statement on 23 November.
Government services are switching increasingly to digital and access is considered essential as a safety net in current social and economic conditions with the risk that it would not be provided under competition alone.
Broadband access has the potential to reduce social isolation and enable people to be cared for more easily outside of hospitals.
Research commissioned by Ofcom in 2014 demonstrated "marked relationships between socio-economic deprivation and [poor] broadband availability in cities". Councils also report similar correlations in rural areas potentially signalling that demand amongst the low income demographic could be high.
Nearly one in four adults (around 12 million people) do not have basic online skills, according to a report involving the LGA that revealed considerable regional differences in digital exclusion.
The LGA, which launched an Up To Speed campaign to improve broadband speeds earlier this year, is also calling for the Government to continue its commitment to the USO to give everybody the legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum download speed of 10Mbps by 2020.
The LGA pushed recently for greater transparency for broadband users by calling for a change to the rules which allow providers to promote "up to" download speeds if they can demonstrate that just 10 per cent of their customers can achieve them. These speeds don't reflect the experience of many users, particularly those in remote rural areas.
The LGA also thinks the regulator Ofcom should have the power to request address level data from providers and for third parties to have access to live data on household speeds to present accurate comparisons to consumers.
Councillor Mark Hawthorne, Chairman of the LGA's People and Places Board, said:
"Good digital connectivity is a vital element of everyday life for residents and can help them cut household bills, shop online for cheaper goods, stay in touch with distant relatives, access their bank accounts and even run their own businesses. As central and local government services become more digital, the USO will need to provide faster and more reliable speeds and, for our most vulnerable residents, a subsided connection at an affordable price.
"The quality of digital connectivity can be markedly different from area to area with some households being able to access superfast broadband speeds whilst others can only achieve substantially less. Councils want to see a social tariff enabling all people to be able to access a subsidised broadband service."
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