broadband fibre optic cables

UK broadband speeds set to rise to 30Mbps after Bill amendment pushed through

Plans to boost minimum broadband speeds above 10Mbps in the UK are set to go ahead after Government opposition to an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill was defeated in the House of Lords.

The current Bill, which was announced in April 2016, obliges the Government to set a minimum broadband speed of at least 10Mbps under a new universal service obligation (USO). 

But a push to set more ambitious targets of 30Mbps by 2020 for every household in the UK was initially rejected despite ministers facing cross-party calls to accept the amendments, saying they would pave the way for world-class coverage.

The amendments also make the Government include mobile coverage in the remit of its USO.

More than a million UK homes are still unable to get a 'decent' broadband signal, research from Ofcom in December has suggested. 

Culture minister Lord Ashton of Hyde told the Lords the USO was about setting a minimum standard, and adding the changes could breach EU directives.

However, peers voted to accept the amendments to the Bill, backing them by 250 votes to 206, majority 44.

Speaking at the Bill’s report stage in the Lords, Labour’s spokesman Lord Mendelsohn said: “Whilst the Government has introduced measures to try and move policy along, and some have been very interesting and innovative, the very introduction of the universal service obligation is an acknowledgement that they have not worked.

“Without the elements in this amendment, the Bill will add to that list of tinkering without success.”

The Labour peer added that work by Ofcom had found that introducing the Government’s proposed USO would cost £1.bn, whereas the more ambitious standards outlined in the amendments would cost £2bn.

He added that the 10Mbps speed backed by the Government would be “unfit for usage in a very short time”.

Lord Mitchell, a former Labour now non-affiliated peer, added: “I felt so terribly frustrated by the lack of ambition in the Government’s requirements, and what they’re putting forward. Gigabytes should be king.”

For the Government, Lord Ashton said it shared the ambition for widespread availability of fibre-optic connections.

But he said he struggled to see how the targets “could possibly be compliant with EU law”.

He added: “The USO is a safety net to prevent social and economic inclusion - not a statement of ambition. We are setting the minimum, not the maximum.”

Later, the Government suffered a further defeat on the Bill when peers backed a move that would allow customers to cap their monthly mobile bills.

The amendment, which was voted through by 244 votes to 198, majority 46, would also allow users to switch mobile provider at no additional cost where a service is sub-standard.

Proposing the move, Liberal Democrat Lord Clement-Jones said: “Mobile phone billing is one of the most complicated areas of domestic expenditure.

“There may be in particular some danger of vulnerable customers getting into difficulty and it should be possible for a consumer to set a cap on expenditure on a mobile phone.”

He pointed out limits were imposed on credit cards, but not for mobile phone contracts.

Lord Clement-Jones added: “This is not a draconian requirement, this is a voluntary opt-in capping system that is being proposed.”

Speaking in support of the amendment, Lord Mendelsohn said the call for mobile caps came in response to “bills which are causing stress to people in particular circumstances”.

He added: “Mobile phones are not luxury products and actually low income households are more reliant on their mobile phones than other households.”

Lord Mendelsohn argued unexpected bills could make it harder for users to budget, especially if they were on a low income and “exacerbate a consumer’s debt problems”.

The report stage of the Bill also saw calls for the culture secretary to have the power, if needed, to impose a statutory code of practice on search engines in the drive to combat piracy websites.

It comes after Google and Bing recently signed up to a voluntary code aimed at making it harder for internet users to search for illegally streamed live football matches, pirated music and other creative materials. 

The code, the first of its kind in the UK, will accelerate the demotion of illegal sites following notices from rights holders.

It means those who search for content such as music videos, digital books and football coverage will be more likely to be taken to bona fide providers rather than pirate sites where a user’s security may be at risk.

But opposition spokesman Lord Stevenson of Balmacara raised doubts over the voluntary deal reached.

He said: “It doesn’t smack of a real commitment to scourge out the terrible way in which search engines in the past have often referred people, who should have known better, to material which was not cleared for copyright and should not have been made available to them through that route.”

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