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Super-fast broadband will be limited to customers who can pay extra, minister says

Super-fast broadband speeds may only be available to those willing to pay more for their internet in the future, after a minister said the government was focusing on offering just a “decent” minimum service.

Culture minister Matt Hancock said 93 per cent of premises have access to broadband meeting the universal service obligation (USO), but that people wanting “really tip-top level” broadband access would have to pay more.

The USO guarantees a minimum download speed of 10 megabits per second (Mbps) and is intended to be offered to 100 per cent of British residents by 2020.

Hancock said that the USO’s cost cap has yet to be set, with a range of technology potentially needed to provide high-speed broadband to the “hardest to reach” properties.

Speaking in the Commons, Conservative Michael Tomlinson asked him to clarify what broadband speeds properties will be offered under the project to guarantee 100 per cent access.

Hancock, replying as MPs debated the Telecommunications Infrastructure (Relief from Non-Domestic Rates) Bill, said: “We’ve said 10 megabits a second as a minimum and that is Ofcom’s analysis of the needs today of the average household, because this is about making sure there is a service everybody can use.

“For instance, as we ask people to pay their taxes, get their passports online or indeed to do their applications for rural payment services, it is a perfectly reasonable request back to us in government that people should have a decent level of broadband.

“If you want the really tip-top level, then people may have to pay more for that - I think that’s not unreasonable either.

“So we are saying there must be a decent level of high-speed broadband. At the moment we’ve said 10 megabits per second as a minimum, but we’ve also said that has to be reviewed and reviewed in an upwards direction in due course.”

Tory MP Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) earlier asked for details on the USO cost cap, prompting Hancock to note it “all depends” on the technology.

The minister went on: “For some places that are a long way away from the existing network, it may cost an awful lot to dig a trench and get a piece of fibre all the way to them.

“There are new technologies coming onstream, especially fixed wireless technologies where you essentially beam a signal from one place to another and, of course, as a last resort, satellite technologies - which are good but just not as reliable - that mean everybody can get connected.

“So the aim is to get decent broadband speeds to every single premises that want them, but to make sure as much of that as is feasibly possible is covered by a fixed network but also using technologies to reach the hardest to reach.”

The Bill, which is at second reading stage, seeks to offer 100 per cent business rates relief for five years to telecoms companies that install new fibre broadband.

Hancock said the relief period started in April, with any relief back-dated where necessary.

He added: “We will fund and we will fuel a full fibre future.”

In March a new set of proposals was outlined by the government that could see automatic compensation provided to customers who receive a poor broadband or landline service from their provider. 

The policy will hopefully ensure greater consistency of service from ISP’s as well as the minimum internet speeds.

Shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne said Labour “cautiously welcomed” the government’s “apparent commitment to provide financial relief for five years for all new investment in full-fibre internet”.

He described the Bill as a “crucial piece of infrastructure policy” which “will have huge impact on the potential investment opportunities for all of our communities over the coming decades”.

Concluding his remarks, Gwynne said: “I do think it’s rather ironic, Madam Deputy Speaker, that on the day that pretty much all of the parliamentary IT internet connection is down that we’re talking about IT connections, but nevertheless I have it on good assurances that the parliamentary ICT officers are busily trying to reconnect MPs to their email accounts and the internet.”

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