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DEFRA Committee Launch Fresh Inquiry into UK Rural Broadband Provision

Saturday, November 1st, 2014 (7:47 am) - Score 1,585

A Commons Select Committee for the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has launched a new inquiry that will examine the current broadband coverage in rural areas. It will also look at the “Assisted Digital” (i.e. Digital by Default) support being offered to isolated communities and farmers who struggle to get online.

Presently the coalition Government’s national Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme is aiming to make fixed line superfast broadband (24Mbps+) Internet download speeds available to 95% of the population by 2017 (rising to 99% by 2018 when you include mobile/wireless services), with 100% being promised a minimum speed of at least 2Mbps.

However, despite making reasonable progress towards its targets, the £1.7bn (public funding used so far) project has often been criticised for tending to focus on connecting up urban and sub-urban areas first (inside-out approach), which means those with the poorest broadband connectivity in remote rural locations (i.e. the last 5-10%) are often, with a few exceptions, the last to benefit.

Meanwhile some councils have struggled to afford the needed match-funding in order to achieve the latest 95% goal, while BDUK’s strict framework has tended to mean that the only viable telecoms operator able to bid and win the relevant contracts is BT (everybody else dropped out long ago). A lack of support for smaller alternative network (altnet) providers, usually by failing to ensure good transparency of coverage, speed and cost data in the relevant contracts, certainly hasn’t helped.

Adding insult to injury, the Government’s Digital by Default policy often appears to be forcing those in isolated rural areas, such as farmers, to go online in order to complete certain tax submissions and other tasks.

The Rural Broadband and Digital-Only Services Inquiry

This inquiry will examine the current broadband coverage in rural areas and the new digital─only services. It will also look at the “Assisted Digital” support being offered.
The Committee invites written evidence on the following issues:

1. The extent of broadband coverage in hardest to reach rural areas
2. Digital access and experience of digital─only programmes, such as the new CAP system applications
3. Support available for those required to use digital─only programmes

Mind you there has been no shortage of similar inquiries and related reports over the past few years (e.g. here, here and here), although some of these have ended up making unrealistic proposals or falling into the usual bracket of overinflated politically motivated criticism. The proximity to next year’s General Election is likely to further magnify such language.

Sadly this ignores the fact that there are still plenty of problem areas with the BDUK approach, which could easily be resolved if heads were cracked together through the application of common sense. But in the end the Government has rarely adjusted their approach, at least not in any significant way, and we suspect that this inquiry won’t be any different.

The closing date for Written Submissions is Wednesday 19th November 2014, which means we’re unlikely to see the outcome until early 2015.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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