Procurement 22 August 2017

How recent rural broadband developments may help your business

Rural broadband still lags a long way behind urban connectivity
Rural broadband still lags a long way behind urban connectivity

The overall speed and quality of rural broadband connectivity throughout Britain has been hugely improved in the last year, thanks to four key initiatives. Here, editor at BroadbandGenie, Matt Powell, explains the importance of each.

As anyone who lives outside our cities will know, rural broadband still lags a long way behind urban connections.

Even though baseline average speeds have increased over the past couple of years, they still have a long way to go before they truly deserve being called ‘superfast’. That said, some recent developments in rural broadband may be cause for optimism.

Four new initiatives have been announced over the past year or so that could make life a little faster in rural areas, and the details of each are explained in this article. First though, here is a quick look at how standard broadband speeds have performed over the past three years.

According to Ofcom, the average broadband speed has increased from 18.7 Mbps in October 2014 to 36.7 Mbps in April 2017. This was a gradual rise that went up from 18.7 to 22.8 Mbps between October 2014 and February 2015, then again to 28.9 Mbps in March 2016 before hitting 36.2 Mbps in April 2017.

These figures look good, but it’s worth remembering that so-called “superfast” broadband packages are still only available to 92 per cent of the UK population.

Those still having to contend with ADSL have an average speed of only 4.4 Mbps, and ADSL2 only 9.9 Mbps. Some very rural areas still suffer broadband speeds below 1 Mbps.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme has committed to increasing coverage to 95 per cent of the country by the end of 2017. Ofcom has also committed to delivering a minimum of 10 Mbps broadband to all households.

It is quite a mixed bag for broadband, with rural areas still losing out by a considerable margin. The following four initiatives are, however, cause for optimism.

Using white space for broadband

Various projects are in different stages of planning that could use old TV frequencies called “white space” to deliver broadband. As the UK now has digital TV, these frequencies are currently unused.

The technology uses the old TV frequencies and the old broadcast towers that are still in place to deliver a theoretical speed of up to 40 Mbps to homes within 10km of a tower.

Those premises further away will get gradually slower speeds, but will still be an improvement on ADSL. Microsoft is working on something similar in the US which could also work in the UK too.

The Universal Service Obligation plan

Ofcom’s Universal Service Obligation plan “ensures that basic fixed line services are available at an affordable price to all citizen and customers across the UK.”

Despite the questionable phrasing, this plan seeks to get all rural areas connected with telephone and broadband connections. It is still currently in consultation right now but may pave the way to better broadband. Especially as it has already prompted action from BT.

BT’s offer to connect 99 per cent of the rural population

In response to the Universal Service Obligation plan, BT has offered to invest £600m of its own money to offer almost total coverage with at least 10 Mbps by 2022.

This seems to be a good offer which would add around 1.4m rural households to the network and allow faster speeds.

But it hasn’t been universally welcomed as some say it will hand BT another monopoly over rural areas and stop competitors offering to connect rural areas. Nothing has yet been decided.

The rise of alternative services such as Airband

Airband is one of a few alternative network connections designed to reach those that fibre cannot. It is a hybrid wireless/wired network that uses a dish on your property and aerials spread around some areas of the Midlands. While limited in scope right now, it has real potential.

Other solutions include 4G internet for those in areas with good mobile coverage, satellite broadband, independent network operators and community initiatives.

We are used to seeing lots of plans, consultations and talk from government but it does seem as though there may be action this time. Significant investments have been made by government, and by internet service providers, to increase network speeds and coverage – though there is still a long way to go.

There is a case for optimism in rural broadband, but just like when trying to download a large file over a slow connection, patience is most definitely required.

Matt Powell is editor at BroadbandGenie.co.uk

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