Ofcom needs more broadband clout, say MPs

Some members of the latest committee of MPs to scrutinise the Communications Bill aren't happy that it ignores the issue of broadband availability

The government has been criticised for not giving Ofcom more responsibility for the growth of the UK's broadband market.

According to several MPs, the Communications Bill should be amended so that Ofcom -- the new regulator that will replace five existing regulators, including Oftel -- has the power to force telcos to make faster data services available to everyone in the UK.

The Communications Bill is currently being examined by a parliamentary standing committee, and is expected to be passed into law this summer. Once this happens, Ofcom will begin regulating the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors.

John Whittingdale MP, a member of the standing committee, is concerned that Ofcom's proposed powers to impose universal service conditions on telecoms operators do not include any reference to broadband.

Last month Whittingdale, who is MP for Maldon and East Chelmsford, proposed in an amendment that the clause on universal service conditions should include "broadband services".

"Ofcom should have a role in promoting the take-up of broadband in the national interest," Whittingdale told the committee. He also congratulated the Communications Workers Union (CWU) for pushing the government on this issue.

Whittingdale urged the government to use its proposed spending on broadband for schools, hospitals and other public services to drive BT's rollout of broadband, and added that Ofcom should also have a role in promoting and publicising broadband -- as also suggested by the CWU.

Another committee member, John Robertson, MP for Glasgow Anniesland, also proposed that the universal service conditions clause should be changed to include an obligation to provide "affordable access to services on ever-greater bandwidth."

"Although my amendment is probing to find out where the government stand, I also want to ensure that broadband, its extra use and increasing (band)width, are referred to in the bill, and that we do not have stick to the limit that is bought off the shelf in the marketplace. We must ensure that we cover future expansion," explained Robertson.

Robertson added that it is important for people to fully understand the issues surrounding broadband rollout, rather than just indulging in "BT-bashing".

Currently around 66 percent of the country is served by BT's ADSL network, although technical limitations mean that only an estimated 63 percent of households -- around 14 million homes -- can actually get broadband via ADSL. NTL and Telewest both offer broadband via their cable networks to a total of over 11 million homes.

Brian White, MP for Milton Keynes, agreed that Ofcom's powers regarding universal service conditions should include the provision of faster data services. "We must ensure that bandwidth is the issue that is addressed, and that future technologies are addressed as well, rather than just broadband," White said.

Neither amendment was accepted, though, and it is thought unlikely that the Communications Bill will be significantly changed, given the extensive legislative scrutiny that has already taken place.

Last year, a pre-legislative scrutiny committee -- chaired by Labour peer Lord Puttnam -- considered the government's original draft bill and proposed over 100 amendments, most of which were accepted by the government.

As ZDNet UK reported back in May 2002, the government believes that its broadband strategy does not need specific legislation, and chose not to include any specific broadband clauses in the Communications Bill -- a move that Whittingdale described as "extraordinary".

A DTI spokesman told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the government was committed to making Broadband Britain a success through the creation of a strong and competitive market.

The government did, however, amend the draft Communications Bill in November to add a clause which the Broadband Stakeholder Group thinks could help the rollout of broadband infrastructure.

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