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UK Rural Services Network Calls for Broadband Policy Improvements

Thursday, December 11th, 2014 (8:45 am) - Score 482

The Rural Services Network, which is devoted to improving services in rural communities across England and remains the only rural Special Interest Group at the Local Government Association (LGA), has published its manifesto for the 2015 General Election and called on a future government to make several key improvement’s to the UK’s broadband roll-out strategy.

The Manifesto covers a multitude of different areas, but naturally we’re primarily interested in what they have to say on the issue of broadband Internet access, which broadly calls for greater transparency, a more ambitious target than the 2Mbps for all minimum download speed and greater flexibility to support smaller community built / alternative network (altnet) ISP schemes.

Broadly speaking most of the demands are fairly level headed and arguably much more balanced than some of the more radical proposals that we’ve seen from different quarters of late, although whether the Government will take any notice is an entirely different matter.

RSN Broadband and Mobile Connectivity – Calls to Government

Two issues demand urgent resolution, these being to:

◾ Permit greater flexibility in what its agency, BDUK, allows to be counted as match funding for Government broadband investment programmes, so that local projects with allocations can actually proceed.

◾ Demand that providers (who receive public funds) release detailed information about superfast broadband availability at a premises level and costs, so that public programmes have the information needed to target investment and community-led schemes can proceed with more certainty.

The Rural Services Network calls upon an incoming Government to:

◾ Recognise that fast broadband infrastructure is now of fundamental importance to rural economies and communities. Without it the nation’s rural areas will be at a significant disadvantage, with impacts on business performance and access to services amongst other things.

◾ Introduce a more ambitious target for universal provision, set much higher than 2Mbps. Explore the scope for an up-to-date Universal Service Obligation for broadband.

◾ Focus its broadband strategy and investment on achieving coverage where there is genuine market failure, with no broadband available or in prospect, instead of diverting funding to places likely to be commercially viable.

◾ Set out in more detail how and when it intends to reach the 5% of premises outside its main superfast programme, making use of innovative technologies. Expand the £10 million funding pot for this work.

◾ Lobby hard for a relaxation of State Aid rules applied to networks built with public subsidy. The current rules present both technical and commercial barriers to providing solutions in the deepest rural areas.

◾ Examine how improved mobile phone network coverage and competition can be achieved in rural areas, by encouraging more mast sharing between operators and by arguing for regulated access to BT’s backhaul infrastructure for other 4G operators.

As usual there are a few areas that might prove difficult to achieve within the existing BT dominated Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) framework, not least with regards to the calls for a release of detailed information about availability at premises level and cost. The involvement of BT’s own investment (i.e. not 100% pure public funding) and confidentiality clauses in the related contracts have so far made it very difficult to secure such information.

Elsewhere Ofcom’s recent 2014 Infrastructure Report suggested that a minimum speed of 10Mbps might be more reflective of current needs than the existing 2Mbps Universal Service Commitment (USC), although the regulator has been saying that for the past couple of years and without securing much traction within Government.

The call for a legally binding broadband USO is also a familiar one, although much like Labour’s similar proposal it’s currently just a demand to “explore the scope” and lest we not forget that raising the USO too high could result in consumers paying more for their service, although it might well be a price worth paying.

Cecilia Motley, Chair of the Rural Services Network, said:

In England, almost one in five people live in our rural towns, villages and countryside. Rural communities are significant contributors to the nation’s economy. If they thrive, the chances are that the nation thrives too. Policies for health care, education, economic growth, transport, housing and so on must all benefit rural communities and meet their needs.

This is not an unrealistic call to hike government spending, but a call for recognition that in hard times especially, rural areas deserve their fair share of public expenditure. It cannot be right that in almost every sphere of public policy less is spent on rural communities than on communities elsewhere. The historic underfunding of rural services must be brought to an end.”

The next few months are likely to be very interesting as we move closer to the General Election in May 2015 and various political parties publish their own manifestos. Broadband is widely expected to be a big talking point and we’d also be very surprised if the current coalition Government didn’t soon set out their plans for reaching 100% coverage of superfast broadband by 2020.

Leave a Comment
5 Responses
  1. Avatar DTMark says:

    Am I right in thinking that by end 2017 every single property in the country will be able to get a 2 Meg broadband service?

    And that no delivery technology or approach for that has been worked out yet?

    So there remain three years to deliver that. But someone will have to design it first. We simply have to assume there’s enough in the budget having blown a fair amount of it already. Fingers crossed kind of thing.

    Ed Vaizey has already told us that we have the money to take every premise to superfast speeds. This rather implies that we’ll be going straight to those targets rather than the 2Meg – why duplicate effort in the same locations?

    “we’d also be very surprised if the current coalition Government didn’t soon set out their plans for reaching 100% coverage of superfast broadband by 2020”

    Plans, or, ‘aims’? Without a detailed delivery plan for what’s going on now, there don’t appear to be any plans. Plenty of ‘aims’, though.

    1. They basically can already – satellite

    2. Avatar DTMark says:

      Not from what I read – satellite doesn’t deliver 2 Meg at peak times, and not at all other times, either.

      But then if you go on headline speeds alone, you could say that satellite is very nearly a superfast broadband solution.

      It would be easy to assume that “broadband comes down a phone line” (not my experience, personally – it almost never does!) and so the solution has to be some kind of fixed line option. We would know by now whether fixed line is even viable. Perhaps it’s time to be honest.

      3G or 4G might be tech solutions, but from what I remember, there’s no joined up thinking between BDUK and that project to stuff the mobile operators because that’s only about 2G voice services.

      The message would seem to be that the UK Rural Services network already has many of the things for which it is campaigning if you judge by the letter, not the spirit, of the delivery options.

    3. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Officially it’s by the end of 2016. Plus Satellite is ok as a stop-gap but it doesn’t have the capacity to serve all rural areas without a serious slowdown. Not to mention Satellite’s many other limits, such as small usage allowances, high latency and high equipment costs.

    4. Avatar gerarda says:

      Ofcom in a repeat of the “universally available” ADSL claim seems intent on spinning the numbers it says cannot get a 2mbps service so that they appear to be low enough to be covered by Satellite.

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