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What is the broadband USO?

The Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband is a UK-wide measure intended as a “safety net” to deliver broadband to those premises that do not have access to a decent and affordable connection.

The Government have defined a decent connection as one that can deliver 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed (along with other defined quality parameters). Ofcom has defined an affordable connection as one that costs less than £45 per month.

The USO provides a legal right to request a decent broadband connection, up to a cost threshold of £3,400 per premises.

BT (and KCOM in Hull) are the Universal Service Providers responsible for fulfilling requests from eligible consumers.

What are the eligibility criteria?

Residents and businesses are eligible for the USO if:

  • they do not have access to a decent broadband connection by any technology including wireless connections such as mobile broadband; or
  • if the only service available that can provide the minimum criteria costs more than £45 per month; and
  • the property is not due to be connected by a publicly funded roll-out scheme within 12 months; and
  • the connection will cost no more than £3,400 per premises to build (or the customer has chosen to pay the excess above that amount).

As of September 2021, Ofcom estimated around 123,000 premises UK-wide (0.4%) did not have access to a decent broadband connection. These premises are largely in remote, rural areas. Figures for individual constituencies can be found our our broadband speeds data dashboard.

When and how can a request be made?

The USO opened for requests on 20 March 2020. Requests must be made through BT (or KCOM in Hull).

BT’s website on the USO includes further information and an eligibility postcode-checker. KCOM does not expect to have any premises eligible in their area due to the reach of their existing network.

Ofcom’s FAQ page on the USO: Your right to request a decent broadband service: What you need to know (20 March 2020) provides further information and contact details.

What technology will be used?

Any technology capable of delivering the minimum technical USO standards could be considered to deliver connections, including mobile broadband. In practice, most connections under the USO are likely to use full-fibre or fibre-to-the-cabinet technology.

Depending on the technology used, some consumers may receive a higher quality connection than the minimum standards.

How many premises have been connected under the USO?

Ofcom reported that BT received just under 1,350 USO orders up to 14 October 2021. These orders will lead to full-fibre connections being built that can serve just under 6,500 premises.

Concerns about high excess costs

Where BT estimate that the cost of connecting a premises under the USO would be more than £3,400 per premises, customers have the option of paying the excess costs.

Following concerns about the number of quotes that were falling above the cost threshold, Ofcom opened an investigation into how BT was calculating costs in July 2021. In response, BT agreed to change its method for calculating costs. The changes relate to how the cost of connecting a particular premises within a cluster of premises is calculated and shared.

Even with these changes Ofcom says there remains a “small but significant” number of premises for which the costs of building a connection are very high, mostly in remote rural areas. Following a call for evidence on connecting ‘very hard to reach’ premises’ in 2021, the Government said it would set out proposals for addressing connectivity challenges to these premises later in 2022. Our briefing on gigabit broadband funding provides more information.

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