Having access to the Internet is now a must for most of us, with more and more businesses going paperless and demanding that we communicate online. Access to a stable broadband connection is critical for firms which may be forced to suspend business operations in the event of a broadband outage. Therefore, it was good news to hear the announcement of the Digital Economy Bill in the Queen’s speech earlier this year (18 May 2016).
The Digital Economy Bill has a number of aspects to it but one which has been heavily reported on is the introduction of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) – a commitment to ensure that everyone in the UK has broadband access with download speeds of at least 10mbps.
Currently it is estimated that 83 per cent of the UK has access to broadband. This is expected to rise to 95 per cent by 2017 by virtue of the broadband roll out under BDUK. The USO is therefore in respect of the remaining five per cent which equates to what is estimated by government to be around 1.5m properties. But how will this be done and when will this be done?
The how is still being worked out and the government expects to consult on this later this year. In respect of the when, this can only be determined once government has worked out the how. However, a date of 2020 has been referred to in the press.
That is also the time when 5G is expected to be released. A number of trials are currently being run on 5G and some astonishing results in terms of speed are being seen. For example, researchers from the University of Surrey have achieved download speeds of 1tbps, which is roughly 3,000 times faster than the fastest broadband download speeds in the UK, which are around 30mbps. However, Ofcom has said that it expects that real world 5G will deliver download speeds of 10 – 50gbps, compared with the current 4G average download speed of 15mbps.
The question therefore is whether the USO commitment by government in the Digital Economy Bill is too little too late? I don’t believe so. Despite more and more of us using mobile devices rather than desktops and laptops there are still many “not spots” and partial “not spots” where mobile services cannot be accessed (which the government is seeking to address). The roll out of 5G will be phased across the country (similarly to the roll out of 4G) with the release expected to be in major cities initially, such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.
4G is still relatively expensive compared to the cost of broadband and so it is difficult to see how 5G will be able to compete in terms of cost. Also, the Digital Economy Bill commitment for everyone to have broadband access with download speeds of at least 10mbps is a safety net and there is nothing to say that download speeds could not reach in excess of this.
However, it is not inconceivable that over time, 5G will replace broadband – at least in the home. With the advent of the internet of things and smart homes, people are moving into a connected world which is mobile, with the increased popularity of mobile devices such as smart phones, tablets and wearable devices such as fitbits.
Of course, with 5G will also come autonomous cars, in respect of which extensive trials are already being carried out by the likes of Google and Tesla, with varying degrees of success. The landscape of our digital lives is to change dramatically over the next five to ten years and even more so as the younger generation continue to embrace technology despite its cybercrime risks. Watch this space – there are interesting times ahead…
Kiran Chand is legal director at Bond Dickinson
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