Universal Service Obligation and Broadband Internet – Further comments

ThinkBroadband article on European Commission plan to establish a broadband-Internet universal service obligation in the European Union.

My Comments

What should be the minimum qualifications for universal provision of a broadband Internet service?

There may have to be a minimum bandwidth for the “standard service”. This would then require the universal service provider to be able to provide that level of bandwidth to the customer’s door in all areas.
In the case of technologies like ADSL or wireless where the distance from the exchange or base station and the quality of the infrastructure or the terrain between the customer and the exchange / base station determines the bandwidth, the provider would have to take steps to achieve the minimum bandwidth at the customer’s door. This would require the ISP to undertake such works as renewal of telephone wiring or installation of repeater stations.
As far as the minimum standard of service is called, there would have to be a minimu bandwidth. Some people may reckon that 512kbps would be the standard bandwidth for basic use such as browsing “Web 2.0” sites and / or sending and receiving e-mail using POP3. Others may consider 1Mbps more realistic considering the current generation of Internet transport protocols. This would allow more bandwidth for the increasingly-common Internet practices like on-line multimedia, V2oIP (voice and video telephony over the Internet) and increased file transfer such as through use of “cloud-based” computing services.
Another factor that may need to be defined would be what kind of technology should be used to provide the service. This would determine whether the service should use ADSL2, FTTx and similar wireline connections to each door as a minimum standard or whether they can use wireless in sparse areas.
Similarly, there may be the issue of bandwidth-use allowances for the universal service and what happens if the user oversteps that allowance.
Another issue that will need to be worked out is content control mechanisms so that children don’t see unsuitable content on this service. Could this be provided with a “clean-feed” service or through a standard Internet-filter program installed in the Internet-gateway device or “end-user” computer. It also includes updating of content filter lists on a regular basis. 

Who should be the ISP who provides the “standard service” and is responsible for covering all areas?

It may be provided by the “universal service” telecommunications provider’s retail broadband-Internet arm, similar to Telstra’s BigPond service, British Telecom’s BT Broadband service or France Télécom’s Orange Internet service. On the other hand, it could be provided by an existing retail ISP who is awarded a “universal service provisioning” contract by the national government or a local ISP who works as part of a local “switched-on access” program. If true competitive access is required, then all retail ISPs would be required to provide the universal service.

What could be the public-access requirements?

The standard for universal-access Internet service will have to encompass “public-access” requirements which would be the equivalent of the “public payphone” in the universal-access telephony service definition. This could cover the requirement to provide Internet-access terminals in public libraries, hospitals, and similar public places; or providing “wireless hotspot” service in public areas like parks or town squares.

How should it be funded?

Because it will be more costly to provide the set minimum standard of Internet access at a specified price in some areas such as the country, there would be the issue of covering the losses associated with providing this kind of service.
Typically, this could be through the ISP charging more for its discretionary services such as high-bandwidth plans, mailbox services or Web hosting. This may be the model practised by retail broadband arms of universal-service telecommunications companies. It may also encompass the ISP selling content services such as music and movie download services to its customers and to the general public.
On the other hand, there may be a “universal service fund” that may be established by the government. The money could be raised through dedicated taxes such as a “universal service levy” on discretionary services; redirection of a portion of any sales tax or consumption tax associated with Internet-access costs or simply through line spending by the government.
Sometimes, the universal Internet service could be integrated in to the mechanisms that exist for providing the universal telephone service, such as using existing universal-service funds or taxes.
Whatever way, such universal-service obligations shouldn’t hamper the competitive Internet-access market and the advantages that it brings like low access prices or good-quality service.

Concerns

One main concern would be how universal-service operators could marginalise areas of less economic importance. This could manifest in deploying infrastructure capable of providing just the basic Internet service into those areas or being slow about provisioning or maintaining Internet service in those areas. This situation can lead to long-term customer dissatisfaction with the service and therefore lead to customers deserting the universal-service ISP when competition appears in their area.
This situation has repeated itself many times with incumbent telecommunications providers who provided the universal telephone service, whether they are private companies or government-run operations.
There needs to be a minimum service-level standard established as part of the universal-service obligation for the Internet. It would have to cover such issues as response to customer issues like service faults and difficulties; and the time taken to provision new services to the customer.

To sum up

If the concept of universal Internet access is to work successfully, a lot of questions will need to be asked so as to avoid problems with provisioning this level of service.
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