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While US Attacks Net Neutrality, UK Makes High-Speed Internet 'Legal Right'

Rejecting major telecom company's offer to voluntarily expand in rural regions, UK government says speedy broadband service now mandatory nationwide by 2020

By 2020, all U.K. citizens will have a legal right to access internet with a minimum speed of 10Mbps. (Photo: barnimages.com/Flickr/cc)

While last week the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rolled back net neutrality rules that allowed the internet to be regulated as a public utility, the United Kingdom announced Wednesday that by 2020, high-speed internet will be a legal right for all British households and businesses.

Rejecting an offer from the British communications company BT to voluntarily provide universal broadband access and improve speeds in rural regions on their own timeline, the U.K. Department of Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport has adopted a universal service obligation (USO) stipulating that by 2020, speeds of at least 10Mbps—or what's "needed to meet the requirements of an average family"—must be available nationwide.

The department told the Guardian that officials felt BT's proposal was not "strong enough for us to take the regulatory USO off the table, and have therefore decided not to pursue BT's proposal, in favor of providing a legal right to broadband."

"We are grateful to BT for their proposal but have decided that only a regulatory approach will make high speed broadband a reality for everyone in the U.K., regardless of where they live or work," said Culture Secretary Karen Bradley. "We know how important broadband is to homes and businesses and we want everyone to benefit from a fast and reliable connection."

In a statement, the department outlines the consumer benefits to a regulatory approach:

  • the minimum speed of connection can be increased over time as consumers' connectivity requirements evolve;
  • it provides for greater enforcement to help ensure households and businesses do get connected;
  • the scheme will maximize the provision of fixed line connections in the hardest to reach areas;
  • [and it] places a legal requirement for high speed broadband to be provided to anyone requesting it, subject to a cost threshold (in the same way the universal service right to a landline telephone works).

Digital Minister Matt Hancock explained on BBC Radio 4 that the right to access high-speed internet does not mean it will be delivered automatically to all households, but rather that "it's about having the right to demand it," so "if you don't go on the internet and aren't interested then you won't phone up and demand this."

The decision comes less than a week after a report from Ofcom, the U.K.'s communications regulator, revealed that four percent of homes, or over a million households, do not have access to broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps. The report showed that speeds were notably worse in rural areas.

While the U.K. is now on a path to provide all residents with access to high-speed internet over the new few years, last week federal regulators in the United States voted to terminate rules that barred internet service providers (ISPs) from creating "fast lanes," and slowing or blocking access to certain websites.

As news of the U.K. decision broke Wednesday, advocates for net neutrality started comparing the two governments' priorities, with not only internet access, but also topics including healthcare and transportation:

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