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Councils Warn UK Rural Areas Face Perfect Storm of Poor Broadband

Wednesday, July 4th, 2018 (8:50 am) - Score 1,474

A new report published by the Local Government Association, which represents around 370 councils across England and Wales, has warned that rural communities could face a post-Brexit “perfect storm” from poor broadband ISP and mobile connectivity, unaffordable homes, skills haps and weak healthcare etc.

The report stems from the LGA’s Post-Brexit England Commission, which has been busy examining the challenges and opportunities faced by rural areas. As usual we’re only going to analyse the LGA’s criticisms and proposals for rural fixed line broadband and mobile (4G etc.) network connectivity, but first a quote..

Cllr Mark Hawthorne, Chairman of the LGA’s People and Places Board, said:

“Rural areas face a perfect storm. It is increasingly difficult for people to buy a home in their local community, mobile and broadband connectivity can be patchy, and people living within rural and deeply rural communities face increasing isolation from health services.

If Britain is to make the most of a successful future outside of the European Union, it’s essential that our future success is not confined to our cities. Unless the Government can give non-metropolitan England the powers and resources it needs, it will be left behind.

This report outlines to Government a firm offer from councils in non-metropolitan areas, to play a greater role in building thriving, connected and healthy communities. It represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for non-metropolitan England to not only improve public services, but deliver a resurgence in rural England’s economy as well.”

In general the report points out that premises in rural areas account for the vast majority of the “final 5%” unable to receive “superfast broadband” speeds (usually defined as 24Mbps+), which they claim will leave those areas vulnerable and only protected by the Government’s forthcoming Universal Service Obligation (USO) for a minimum download speed of 10Mbps (the LGA says this “will only serve as a basic safety net at best“).

On this point they fail to mention that the Government expects “superfast broadband” speeds to continue expanding until reaching 98% of the UK by around 2020. Similarly both Wales and Scotland are looking at how superfast speeds could be made to cover 100% of premises by around 2021 or 2022. Suffice to say that the focus will soon be more on the final 1-2% than the final 5%.

The Government has also recently set an aspiration to cover everybody with “full fibre” (FTTP/H) ultrafast broadband by 2033, but until there’s cross-party support, a strategy and agreed funding behind that then it will remain subject to the political winds of change (details). Equally this won’t help any of those disadvantaged rural areas in the final 1-2%, at least not until the very back end of 2033 (assuming the proposal holds with future governments).

The LGA goes on to claim that the standard of digital connectivity provided to rural new build homes is “below par, and doesn’t reflect the Government’s national ambition to roll out world-class digital infrastructure across the country“. At present, it states, one in five rural homes built in the last 3 years is still not connected to superfast broadband. Moreover, 1 in 10 cannot even achieve the minimum USO speeds.

Many people will understandably agree with the above and the sentiment about the USO speed being too weak, although the document is at least right to say that such legal obligations are only intended to be a “basic safety net.” We fear there could be some complex technical, cost and regulatory competition challenges to setting the speed any higher at this stage (we’ve touched on that recently).

Finally, on Mobile, the LGA states that currently only 60% of rural premises can receive an outdoor 4G signal from all operators, which falls to a just 19% for indoor coverage. The report notes that the Government has pledged to extend mobile coverage to 95% of the UK’s geographic landmass by 2022 (here), although they didn’t specifically define 4G for delivering that.

However EE does aim to cover 95% of the UK’s landmass with their 4G network by the end of December 2020 (currently 90%) and Ofcom’s forthcoming 5G friendly auction of the 700MHz band could also require at least two operators to commit to reaching 92% of the UK’s land area with good reception, but delivering 100% coverage could be very expensive (here and here).

The LGA’s Proposed Solutions

Broadly speaking the LGA’s report makes just two solitary recommendations to help “ensure universal access to fast, reliable digital connectivity” in rural areas, which we’ve summarised below. Previously the LGA has also called for the introduction of a new Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) Kitemark to make it clear to the public whether or not a new home will have a fully future-proofed internet connection (here).

The Key Recommendations

• Give councils the statutory backing to ensure all new build homes are connected to future-proofed digital infrastructure.

Councils in non-metropolitan England will engage with developers through the planning system to ensure that digital connectivity is a key consideration in planning applications so residents can be assured their new homes will have future-proofed digital connectivity.

• Work with Ofcom to ensure mobile coverage data is accurate, up-to-date and reflects consumer experience in non-metropolitan areas.

Councils will work constructively with mobile network operators to understand the role local policy and public sector infrastructure can play in helping expand mobile connectivity across rural and deeply rural areas.

Almost all new builds are already required to ensure that they include the necessary infrastructure to support high-speed broadband networks (e.g. spare cable ducts etc.), although this doesn’t cover the tricky task of getting a network operator to actually make use of the infrastructure they’ve built. Bridging that gap, particularly in rural areas, can be very challenging when the necessary infrastructure isn’t yet present.

We’d also urge a note of caution with applying such requirements to “all new-build buildings,” since it’s one thing for a major developer to take on some of the cost for ensuring that the premises they build can deliver modern broadband speeds but that’s significantly harder for an individual who may be trying to build their own house (leaving space for future cables should be easy enough but beyond that things can get tricky).

As for helping Ofcom to ensure that mobile coverage is accurate and exploring what role public sector infrastructure could play to facilitate related improvements in coverage, it’s currently unclear what this would deliver that isn’t already being tried but constructive engagement is always something that should be welcomed.

One other takeaway thought from all this is that what network builders really like to see is simplification, thus anything that makes the current rules even more complicated or different between local authorities might run the risk of being counter-productive unless carefully controlled.

At the end of the day it will take more than what the LGA proposes to ensure a good quality of universal superfast broadband a mobile, such as a lot of additional investment (mostly from the public purse).

Leave a Comment
18 Responses
  1. Avatar Chris@Ecom says:

    Local councils could significantly help the problem for new-build estates by specifying that ultra-fast infrastructure must be built in from the outset. We regularly contact developers when they get permission for new estates (large and small) offering to put the infrastructure in at build time free of charge but are always met with reluctance to allowing anyone other than Openreach in. If it was a requirement of their planning it would force them to pay attention.

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      You seem to be suggesting a requirement not to use Openreach rather than merely specifying that ultra-fast infrastructure must be built in from the outset?

    2. Avatar Joe says:

      Mark there my be a gap here where OR isn’t interested or not in a developers timeframe; others are but they are not given a chance where builders are only interested in dealing with OR. So nothing happens or it has to retrofitted.

    3. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      At that would make more sense.

    4. Avatar Mike says:

      Most house builders today only seem to care about throwing up garbage as quickly as possible and anything that could delay that is put aside.

    5. Avatar 3G Infinity (now 4G going on 5G) says:

      There is no reason why a developer cannot decide to just put in all the ducting, along with the meet-me rooms and of course somewhere on the development to house the terminating equipment. All premises get a fibre termination and developer pulls through fibre to meet-me or equipment rooms.

      The ISPs can come along at anytime and don’t have to worry about what goes in the ground.

    6. Avatar Chris@Ecom says:

      (Not sure if this reply is going to go to the right topic… fingers crossed!)

      I was referring to situations which we have seen regularly where the developer only wants to deal with OR who then put the bare minimum in, ie not FTTC infrastructure and certainly no FTTP.

      The developers certainly don’t want to spend any money they don’t have to, so no chance of them putting their own ducts and meet-me rooms/chambers in. We have approached several developers and offered to install infrastructure at build time which saves huge amounts of cost over retrofitting. Particularly, installing prior to the streets being adopted by the local council saves huge amounts of money and paperwork hassle but the earlier in the build we can get in the cheaper it becomes.

      Developers though are, in general, reluctant. Whether they don’t understand our business model and therefore think the offer is too good to be true, or perhaps they don’t see a significant enough benefit to their bottom line when selling the properties, but whatever the reason the response we get 99% of the time is ‘no, OR have that covered’.

  2. Avatar AnotherTim says:

    A couple of points:
    Although FTTP is being used to reach some rural areas, even with that in place those communities are still likely to be disadvantaged – by much higher prices. e.g. a business FTTC connection can cost around £42pm (inc VAT) in urban areas, but altnets such as Gigaclear charge over £100pm for their cheapest product (which may be better than FTTC, but most small businesses won’t see any additional benefit). Oh, and while some small businesses use domestic broadband to save money (so FTTC from £20pm), Gigaclears terms explicitly prohibit that.
    Regarding new builds, planning authorities do require large builds to include broadband, but most rural builds are small scale and fall below the threshold where it is required. So most rural builds still have no decent broadband. If that were a requirement for small builds, then with the immense excess construction costs such builds would simply cease.

  3. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

    BDUK Phase 1 is supposedly complete here in West Devon but Superfast has only reached 80%. Phase 2 is ongoing, supposed to be complete next year, so far not a single new connection is working and nothing is being built that I can find. The USO is going to have a lot of customers here, I do wonder how they will fund and deliver the ‘legal right’ that has been created, a perfect storm indeed!

    http://labs.thinkbroadband.com/local/torridge-and-west-devon,E14001000

    1. Avatar Joe says:

      I know they tend to do the work and then at the back end many of the cabinets get turned on but none would be surpising?

    2. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

      @Joe Phase 2 is wireless here, so no cabinets, new masts are slightly easier to spot, but nothing being built so far.

    3. Avatar Joe says:

      It might not be that different in that they’d prob run all the backhaul first then put up the masts. I’m not that far from you but obviously don’t see what their doing on the ground.

  4. Avatar Meadmodj says:

    BT has an obligation for telephony and the developers/builders are used to their processes and specifications covered by consideration contracts. Openreach may be criticised but nationally has sufficient stock of frames & covers, duct etc to supply when the builder needs it. The developer/builder remains in control of the infrastructure build on site. Openreach then will arrange contractors for the cable install and have stated that developments over 30 homes will now be provided with FTTP free. Developers are free to make their own decisions but naturally will follow their industries recommendations as highlighted here. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/498102/HBF-Openreach_FINAL.pdf
    Other providers are free to discuss direct with developers/builders or their industry bodies however installation practices of some providers may not offer the control they require on site. It may simply caution not to consider OR alternatives.

    For smaller developments any requirement on a builder in rural areas will simply place the cost on the house purchasers. Therefore my view that they also need to benefit from the current initiatives and hopefully the new build will make FTTP in that location more economical.

    1. Avatar 3G Infinity (now 4G going on 5G) says:

      House purchasers are more than happy to have a couple hundreds of pounds buried in the final price if that means when they trun up FTTP is there and working – multiple surverys have shown this and many developers are doing it.

  5. Avatar CarlT says:

    Success isn’t confined to the cities, it’s confined to London and the South-East. Plenty of regional cities could benefit from investment in physical infrastructure.

    The UK’s provision of >24Mb is pretty good relative to our peers.

  6. Avatar Craig Hall, Big Blue Rocket says:

    Nothing to stop fibre from the new builds to a local node, with a wireless point to point to metropolitan backhaul fibre pipe. we build wireless infrastructure for rural communities and there is no support from government even though we can get there now and at a fraction of the costs of other technologies. I guarantee that consumers left without broadband cannot wait until the instruments of state and BT decide to deliver. set up a fund for the 5% and allow best priced, best/fastest outcome disruptor win the funds to build.

  7. Avatar Optimist says:

    Why does the LGA think Brexit will somehow make matters worse than they are today? Do they expect the EU, in a fit of ique, to send out a team of saboteurs to cut our broadband connections?

    1. Avatar Carl T says:

      Something to do with losing some access to the internal market and the need to adapt our economy presumably.

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