Ofcom opens probe into BT’s compliance with universal service obligations

Ofcom has launched an investigation into BT’s compliance with its obligations as a broadband universal service provider.

Under universal service obligation (USO) rules introduced in 2018, homes and businesses have the legal right to request access to a high-speed broadband connection.

The rules allow people to ask BT for a USO connection of at least 10 Mbit/s if they cannot currently receive such a speed at an affordable price, and, if BT finds that providing such a connection costs less than £3,400, it must provide one.

However, Ofcom expressed concern that BT may not be complying with the regulatory conditions correctly when it comes to calculating excess costs around the obligation.

The conditions state that if the assessed costs exceed the upper limit, but the customer is willing to pay the excess, BT must still provide the connection.

But Ofcom said it is concerned that BT has not complied with this aspect of the regulations correctly, and may have provided customer quotes which were “higher than necessary”.

BT said it “strongly disagrees” with Ofcom’s assessment.

The regulator said it has opened an investigation into the issue and will now begin gathering evidence around the case.

It said in a statement: “Ofcom’s conditions set out how BT should assess the costs of providing a connection.

“In particular, as required by the legislation, BT must take into account that costs may be shared among other customers who could use the same infrastructure. BT must apply this methodology to calculate the costs of each requested connection.

“While the cost of some connections will be high due to the remoteness of many of these premises, we are concerned that BT may not be complying with the regulatory conditions correctly where it assesses excess costs for a given connection. This could result in some customers’ quote for a connection being higher than necessary.”

In response, a BT spokesman said: “We strongly disagree with Ofcom’s assessment of our delivery of the USO.

“We are disappointed that they have opened an investigation when we’re fully committed to working with both Ofcom and the Government to find better ways to connect the hardest to reach.

“We are obliged to send USO quotes to customers when they request them and appreciate that for the most remote properties some of these can be unaffordable.

“We’re working hard to enable communities to be able to share the costs of a USO connection to help drive down costs for individuals. We will launch this as soon as possible.”

The broadband provider also called for additional measures to be introduced to help the hardest to reach gain access to better broadband connections.

“For some communities, even if they share the costs, the price will remain out of reach,” BT’s spokesman said.

“We can connect 400,000 properties without decent connectivity using 4G and, for properties where this isn’t suitable, we’re already building connections to 4,000 premises through the USO scheme. However, it does not overcome the challenges of connecting the most difficult places, which represent 0.5% of the country.

“We strongly believe this needs to change – alongside the existing USO programme, we need a new plan for the hardest to reach. This has to be a shared endeavour, across industry and with Government and Ofcom.”