Reclassifying broadband as a public utility service could be a costly mistake, a leading advisory group has warned.
The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) believes recent calls for broadband to be given the same status as electricity, gas and water are misguided.
Matthew Evans, Chief Executive at BSG, told Total Telecom that people should "be careful what they wish for", suggesting that utility status could lead to reduced network investment and higher prices for consumers.
He said it is "hard to overestimate" the importance of digital connectivity in today’s society, with broadband being "crucial" for citizens, consumers, businesses and the government.
Mr Evans stressed the importance of delivering fast, reliable broadband at "near universal levels", but challenged the view that public utility status will help achieve this goal.
He explained that the UK's "fiercely competitive" market has delivered "drastic improvements" to customer quality in recent years, encouraging innovative solutions to boost speeds and coverage while driving costs down.
This has resulted in some of the highest levels of broadband adoption in the European Union, Mr Evans noted.
He claimed more must be done, particularly in the countryside, as it is "unacceptable" that some areas are unable to access basic levels of digital connectivity.
But Mr Evans proposed that reclassifying broadband will not guarantee universal availability, citing the example of the main gas grid, which still excludes around ten per cent of UK homes.
In addition, he hinted that costs could rise, should the government take this step.
The BSG CEO noted that average monthly household spend for telecoms has fallen from £91 in 2008 to £81 today, at a time when the availability and take-up of new technologies has increased.
"For understandable reasons, this is not the case for utilities," Mr Evans stated.
He explained that traditional utilities have a single monopoly infrastructure supplier, with services delivered over the top. And while this may address coverage issues in poorly-served areas, replicating the model across the UK would threaten the "healthy" competitive environment.
There would be fewer incentives for the likes of BT and Virgin Media to expand their networks, and for other infrastructure providers such as CityFibre to develop "innovative approaches", Mr Evans claimed.
"Digital connectivity is becoming integral to our lives - indeed it is as important as a utility - but regulating it as such would mark a major intervention into the market, likely deterring investment, whilst adding to the regulatory burden," he added.
Mr Evans said this is "the opposite of what we should be pursuing" in the UK broadband market.
"We should be making it both easier and cheaper to deploy and upgrade digital infrastructure by reforming both the Electronic Communications Code and providing more certainty in the planning regime," he concluded.