The Communications Regulator has told an Oireachtas committee that the State could provide broadband for rural households that cannot get access to commercial services, under a Universal Service Obligation (USO) as part of a forthcoming EU Directive.

The EU directive is scheduled to become part of Irish law before 2020.

Senior representatives from Comreg gave a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Climate Action and the Environment on "Universal Service Obligation" arrangements.

The arrangements were used in the UK to provide broadband services to 2% of households that could not get access from commercial providers.

"Universal Service is a safety net used to ensure that voice and other basic communications services are made available at an affordable price to a minority of citizens that may not be able to access those services," the chair of ComReg told the committee. 

Garrett Blaney said that the current legislative framework does not allow for a Universal Service Obligation that includes high-speed broadband. However, he said a new framework has been adopted in EU law, which is due to be transposed into Irish law before the end of 2020.

"This mechanism is not intended to replace public policy interventions (such as the National Broadband Plan), or commercial rollout. Instead the new framework permits a USO only to be used to ensure the connection of remaining unserved premises where commercial rollout and public policy interventions cannot achieve this," Mr Blaney said.

He also told the committee that if a USO were implemented, there would need to be an open process to select the universal service provider or providers, so that all interested parties could be considered and market distortion is minimised.

The representatives from Comreg told committee members that the regulator had no role in assessing whether Eir could roll out broadband for €1bn.