Broadband USO unlikely to meet needs of rural communities says Law Society

Small cottage in the Scottish HighlandsThe Law Society of Scotland has said that aspects of the universal service obligation (USO) for broadband service providers mean it is unlikely to meet the needs of more remote rural communities in Scotland.

In its response to the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport’s consultation on the design of a new broadband USO, the Law Society has raised concerns that the scheme is not truly universal.

The Society recognises that the proposed per premise cost threshold is intended to achieve a workable balance between coverage and cost, but has said that that some of the properties with the highest installation costs and the least likely to be protected by the USO, may also be the households and businesses in need of protection under the USO and the reliable internet service provision it would enable.

Members of the Society’s Consumer Law, Competition Law, Rural Affairs policy Committees and Technology Law and Practice Committee expressed concerns with regard to the impact of the USO on access to justice and social inclusion for individuals and on small businesses in rural communities across Scotland.

The USO was enabled by the Digital Economy Act 2017, with the aim of giving every household and business the right to request a broadband connection at a minimum speed and up to a reasonable cost threshold, regardless of where they are based.

Jim Drysdale, Convener of the Law Society’s Rural Affairs Committee said, “We are concerned that the proposed design of the USO will have a particularly negative effect in the Scottish context where there is a higher proportion of rural communities than in other parts of the UK.

“The Society campaigns in support of equal and fair access to justice regardless of an individual’s social or financial circumstances, or indeed their location.  We believe that it is perhaps even more important that in areas of the country where it is not easy or possible to obtain face to face advice, that reliable and affordable access to legal advice is available remotely.

“We also have questions and concerns about the wider issue of social inclusion and access to goods and services when so many necessary aspects of daily life depend on internet access.  Online banking for example is crucial to individuals in rural communities where the nearest branch may be out with a reasonable distance.

“The same can be said for businesses in rural communities where compliance has also moved in to the online environment.  HMRC, for example require a “reasonable excuse” for using paper forms.  SMEs depend on the internet both to access the services and commodities they need to run their businesses; but also to market, sell and distribute their own products and services.  This is crucial if they are to compete effectively with businesses in more densely populated areas and ultimately, stay afloat.”

The Society believes that lack of adequate internet provision results in the problems and challenges associated with living in rural locations across Scotland being compounded.

Read the full response here.