The changing nature of 'universal' comms services

The mild consternation I felt upon receiving a letter from my broadband service provider--which as regular readers will know is a company named after a fruit--politely informing me that my Internet service had been cancelled quickly turned to relief as I realised this probably referred to my ADSL service, which was recently replaced by fibre. Nonetheless, it was again an unwanted and unnecessary letter that accompanied another letter requesting that I return all my old boxes to the company. Why oh why could the fibre installation engineer not have picked them up? Do the fibre and ADSL departments not speak to each other?

I digress, but that initial feeling of horror about losing my Internet service reflects how important home broadband has become. When I moved in, the first thing I set up was my broadband service--even before I had established contracts for the other utility services of water, gas and electricity. For me, as for many, broadband has become an essential service that allows me to survive and live where I want.

UK regulator Ofcom has just tackled the issue of what is now deemed essential by consumers in a new report on the affordability of these essential communications services. Its findings showed a broad consensus on which services are seen as the most essential, which are voice services in general but mobile services in particular (voice and text), and access to the internet, particularly the fixed internet.

Slightly further down the "essential" ranking were free-to-view TV, landline voice and mobile internet. Radio, pay TV and internet access from a public place tended to be viewed as essential by fewer consumers. At the bottom of the list were public call boxes. Go back 20 years and public call boxes would probably have been top, with mobile and home broadband services mere glints in the eyes of equipment providers.

Interestingly, the Ofcom research also found that the majority of consumers are unlikely to face affordability issues with regard to their communications services: 86 per cent of those with financial responsibility for communications services say they have never had difficulty paying for their communications services. In the context of concerns over reduced competition within European markets, perhaps regulators have less to fear about consumer prices if so few people report difficulties in paying for their communications services.

What research such as this can help to do is change government perceptions of what is now a "universal service' and convince them to act accordingly. In the UK, public pay phones are still included as a universal service even though the majority of consumers now regard them as less essential. Efforts to ensure all households have at least basic broadband access are clearly to be applauded, while enabling people to have at least a basic mobile phone and contract also appears to be worth serious consideration. For sure, mobile has evolved from being a luxury and expensive "nice-to-have" service to what is now deemed an essential service in an incredibly short space of time.

If you want to read more about Ofcom's very detailed findings, you can download the report here.--Anne

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