Procurement 19 October 2015

Rural broadband developments – How will they affect you and what else needs doing?

The Conservatives have started implementing changes to improve rural broadband, but there is much more to be done
The Conservatives have started implementing changes to improve rural broadband, but there is much more to be done

Broadband Genie’s editor Matt Powell explores the recent developments regarding rural broadband and looks at what could lie ahead for businesses based in rural communities.

More than 80 per cent of UK premises now have access to a super-fast broadband service but that still leaves 20 per cent on connections which are increasingly outdated. In many cases the properties which lack modern broadband are in rural areas where progress has been slow due to a reluctance on the part of the telecom network operators to invest. This is especially troublesome for businesses, which are increasingly reliant upon internet access for day-to-day operations.

Recently, Conservative MP Matt Warman lead a debate on so called “not spots” and suggested a summit be held to discuss the issue. One of the concerns highlighted was that many areas still had a small percentage of homes where broadband speeds were under 2Mb, and a significant number had broadband which fell below 15Mb.

BDUK and rural broadband

There has been some effort to improve rural broadband connectivity. Several years ago the government launched Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), a project designed to improve broadband services right across the country. The goalposts have moved several times and – perhaps inevitably for a government IT pledge – the project has missed its initial 2015 date, but the current target is for 95 per cent of the country to have access to “super-fast” broadband by 2017.

Super-fast isn’t an official technical term, but the government has defined it as a connection of 24Mb or more. In the 2015 Budget George Osborne promised to aim even higher, hoping to deliver at least 100Mb to the majority of homes.

For rural users the most important part of BDUK is the universal obligation, the minimum speed the government has said every single premises should get. This is currently 5Mb and longer-term plans are to ensure fast connectivity for absolutely everybody. But there’s no clear plan from the government about how this will be achieved. In some areas it might simply be a case of spending money to improve existing infrastructure, but there are scenarios where alternative technology may have to be deployed.

Rural broadband technology – what are the options?

Most broadband services are using either the BT Openreach telephone lines or the Virgin Media network. The problem for rural premises is that while they can probably get a BT phone line the only option for broadband may be ADSL, a service that rapidly loses speed the further you are from an exchange. At the extreme end the meagre performance this offers may can only charitably be called broadband. Virgin Media’s network, while very fast, is smaller than BT and mostly focused on areas where the installation of lines makes financial sense.

Delivering fast internet services to remote locations might need to use something other than our existing fixed line infrastructure.

(1) Full fibre

A Fibre To The Home/Premises (FTTH or FTTP) service skips the creaky old copper wire and delivers ultra-fast connectivity over a full fibre link. This is expensive to deploy, but the upside is that it’s extremely future-proof and can serve a large number of premises. While still relatively rare in the UK there are a growing number of FTTP networks, and it’s encouraging to note that many of them are in rural locations.

(2) Mobile networks

4G mobile broadband can be very fast and might be a good option for communities looking to get faster broadband without running lines to every home and business. Although the transmitter towers still need to be hooked up to the network backbone, it does then make it very easy to then offer internet connections over a wide area to individual properties. There are some trials and smaller companies doing this already, including the impressive home grown firm Agri-broadband, started by one man using a homemade mast.

(3) Satellite broadband

For the most remote locations where fixed lines are not viable, there is satellite broadband. All it needs is a dish with a view of the sky and relatively fast broadband can be handled using an orbiting relay. It has some caveats – mainly the very high latency – but this could be an effective way to plug holes in coverage in the near team for the most extreme outliers, and it is available right now.

(4) Wide area Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi signals can be transmitted over a wide area, and like mobile broadband this can connect many people without the need for fixed lines. Some firms already offer this in parts of the UK. Kojima Wireless uses it for villages in rural locations, and Bournemouth-based C4L offers wireless leased lines for homes and businesses in the Dorset and Hampshire area, even beaming the signal over to the Isle of Wight.

What lies ahead for rural broadband?

Many rural businesses and homes can get faster broadband right away using one of the services above, but it can seem like a half measure, may come with problematic drawbacks and the cost could be high. In order to truly make things better the government and network operators need to work on offering affordable and universal access.

However it is concerning that even the most optimistic plans still seem short-sighted. Even if they are able to get most of us on a minimum 100Mb, that could take many years and still leave the UK trailing other parts of the world.

Rather than building upon an already outdated telecoms infrastructure or using stopgap measures we should be looking far ahead. The cost of upgrading to fibre optic lines would be high, but it would also ensure that Britain not only enjoys very fast broadband now but has the capability to keep pace with future developments.

Matt Powell is the editor of broadband and mobile internet website Broadband Genie.

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