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Farmers Bemoan Poor UK Rural Mobile and Broadband Connectivity

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 (8:30 am) - Score 1,307
farmer rural broadband and mobile uk

The National Farmers Union has published the results from its latest online and telephone based survey of 812 members, which found that just 16% of farmers had access to “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) speeds (up from 4% in 2015) and only 17% have a “reliable” outdoor mobile signal. But the situation has improved.

The news that farmers, which tend to work in some of the United Kingdom’s most sparse and remote rural areas, suffer from slow broadband and weak mobile signals shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Many of the locations where farmers operate are often last on the list for upgrades due to the economic challenges of building expensive networks to cater for so few users over a wide area.

At present nearly 96% of premises can access a “superfast broadband” connection, which is thanks in no small part to the state aid funded Broadband Delivery UK programme. Meanwhile Ofcom’s recent Connected Nations 2018 report found that the outdoor geographic coverage of 4G services across the UK is still painfully low at 66% (up from 43%) from all four mobile operators or 91% from at least one operator (EE).

The coverage of both mobile and broadband services has improved a lot over the past few years but this won’t mean much to those who have been left waiting at the end of a long line for years.

Key Findings from the NFU Survey

Broadband

* 42% have a download speed of 2Mbps or less.
* 16% get superfast speeds of 24Mbps+.
* 73% access the internet via copper wire.
* 8% access the internet via Satellite.
* 45% believe their current speed is not fast enough for their business needs.
* 37% identify slow speeds as a barrier to future use of digital technology.
* 96% can get online via mobile or computing devices.
* 89% agree broadband is an essential tool for their business.

Mobile

* 19% have a reliable indoor signal in all locations.
* 17% have a reliable outdoor signal in all locations.
* 93% agree a reliable mobile signal is important for their business.
* 38% thought the signal they receive is sufficient for their business.
* 97% of farmers own a mobile phone.
* 83% own a Smartphone with access to 4G.

At this point it’s worth remembering that Britain’s food and farming sector is currently worth £113 billion to the UK economy, employing 3.9 million people, and could benefit from digital upgrades (more efficient farming methods etc.). But those can only come if they’re able to access decent connectivity.

Stuart Roberts, NFU Vice President, said:

“It’s vital that government ensures rural businesses have access to the same reliable broadband and mobile connectivity as urban businesses so they can remain productive, competitive and innovative.

The benefits that farmers receive from applying full connectivity are many; from optimising the use of inputs to decreasing farm costs and improving productivity as a result.

With the industry facing so much uncertainty, it is clear that farmers need as many tools as possible to maintain business resilience, and having access to digital connectivity is paramount if they are to compete with our international neighbours in the global market.

After all, it can be much easier for companies and organisations located in towns and cities to relocate to access different technologies. But this simply isn’t possible for a farm or rural business – connectivity needs to be brought to them.

Decent telecommunication and 4G coverage is also essential for health and safety with farmers often working long hours alone in isolated areas. Too often we see the consequences of farming’s poor safety record. It should be a given that if an accident happens, farmers have access to reliable mobile coverage in all farm locations to call for help.”

The good news is that the roll-out of faster connectivity services hasn’t stopped. For example, the BDUK project hopes to extend the coverage of “superfast broadband” to around 98% by the end of 2020 and after that the new 10Mbps+ Universal Service Obligation (USO) may help to fill in some of the gaps (here). As a result it may be a case of many farmers simply needing to upgrade (i.e. awareness of the new services).

Similarly Ofcom’s plan to auction the 700MHz band to mobile operators this year, which could be used for 4G and 5G services, will come attached to a new coverage obligation (here). This should extend outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area and provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas, among other things.

At the same time it’s worth remembering that EE alone are already working to extend the geographic reach of their 4G network to 95% by the end of December 2020, although it remains to be seen if that is actually achieved given some of the known challenges with reaching remote locations (power supply, planning permission, rugged terrain, network capacity provision etc.).

On top of that the Government has pledged to ensure “nationwide” coverage of Gigabit capable “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband ISP networks by 2033 and in last year’s budget they committed a further £200m to that, which has been targeted to deliver key fibre optic links into rural areas. “As an industry, we will hold the government to that promise of ensuring the very best levels of digital connectivity across rural Britain,” said Stuart.

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Mark Jackson
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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26 Responses
  1. Avatar Simon Lockhart

    Many rural areas these days are being covered by altnet’s – particularly Fixed Wireless broadband, and some of the smaller and/or community led fibre-to-the-property projects. I suspect the biggest problem is that the farmers aren’t always aware that these are available, as the big press coverage is about BT, Gigaclear, Hyperoptic and the others and how they’re getting funding from the government to do it as well…

    However, for us smaller altnets, it’s often the case that the farmers are the ones that put in place the ‘blockers’ to deploying masts and fibre (although, equally, we’ve worked with some really great ones that understand the benefits and go out of their way to help)

    • In my experience a lot of smaller Altnets also aren’t very good at getting the word out that they even exist or where they cover. Some of their websites are woefully vague.

      We frequently have to claw through a lot of little known facebook pages, groups, twitter feeds and other sources just to figure out some of the places where they operate.

      Very few of them keep us directly informed about coverage changes and new developments. This is important though because one of the signatures of a growth ISP is its ability to get noticed beyond the confines of a single area.

    • Avatar AnotherTim

      As someone living in a rural area, I have contacted numerous altnets about broadband solutions. Only one has been able to offer anything at all, and that was far too expensive for the very modest improvement (still sub-superfast). Several told me that as soon as Gigaclear put FTTP in my area they would be able to provide a connection (but presumably so could Gigaclear). Several simply never even got back to me at all.

    • Avatar Joe

      Fwiw the smallest altnets are usually the ones locals know about because its the only thing in their area. Its the slightly larger ones that are difficult.

      hard to say much on the survey – who was asked on what geographic spread.

    • Avatar Jim Weir

      @Mark – it is always amazing how many micro operators you can come across serving tiny patches, but as Joe says, local awareness is generally very good and some have been operating a long time with no desire to grow or change, just meeting their specific need. The challenge is both the new startups with claims of coverage everywhere, or those with diverse geographic networks often HQ’d elsewhere.

      I appreciate that it is tempting to want to appeal to any website visitor to hook in new opportunities, but I remember well the early days of Devon’s voucher scheme where the 1st supplier listed was AB Internet – who had zero network infrastructure in the South West, thus frustrating every caller or visitor and wasting suppliers time as well.

      UKWISPA at least have an attempt at a national coverage map but not all members are added with coverage and a lot of operators are not members.

      Even TBB maps dont have a complete picture (as operators don’t engage & share data) and a lot of operators make spurious claims of coverage, simply claiming postcodes or radius from assets as coverage.

      All the above combine to make a headache for end users & now for BT with their planned USO support group to decipher options for individual applicants.

    • Avatar craski

      “In my experience a lot of smaller Altnets also aren’t very good at getting the word out that they even exist or where they cover. Some of their websites are woefully vague.”

      I run a tiny “Altnet” providing fixed wireless access in my local area and purposely dont advertise, its all word of mouth. I’m happy to help those that seek us out but the intervention area is never going to large enough to provide a viable business so we dont bother with all the extra time and cost of that side of things knowing that 1 or 2 well positioned BDUK AIO cabinets could make the network redundant over the course of a few weeks. Loyalty means nothing these days, most people will jump ship to BTOr to save £5 / month and we cant offer that economy of scale to compete on price.

    • Avatar Joe

      @Jim the real annoyance is that we don’t have good coverage checkers. I don’t blame the small altnets but ofcom really ought to have sorted proper accurate data by now for all others. Their own checker is laughably inaccurate which makes consumers lives difficult.

    • Avatar Simon, Marketing Manager for Airband

      At Airband, we’re working on getting that message out more effectively to our communities in Devon, Shropshire and The Marches (plus our business only network in Wales). There does seem to be a lot of confusion about how smaller AltNets can help isolated communities.

      We’ve recently invested in ‘Community Ambassadors’ who are getting out and about and actually talking to folk, and we’re ramping up our communication with various rural development partners.

      The message is filtering through, but we agree there’s still lots of work for smaller providers to do. The ‘Big Telecommunications’ firms are still widely believed to be the only solution… something they’re more than happy to perpetuate. It’s an uphill struggle to get the messages out there, but we’re on it!

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore

      @ Simon, Marketing Manager for Airband

      Your company has seriously annoyed a lot of people here in West Devon, for 2 years CDS and yourselves have been promising the residents and businesses of my hamlet that we would be covered by your service, now I have a letter from CDS director Keri Denton telling me our hamlet is being de-scoped because ‘point to multi-point wireless coverage is hard to be accurately predicted at a premise level’. Put another way, your company hasn’t got a clue who can get service and who can’t.

      Being unreliable is the main problem with Altnets, you are the third or fourth company to promise service here and then let us down.

    • Avatar DJS

      For Simon from Airband. So what is the real takeup on Dartmoor then? Years after you built the service there are still reliability issues and nobody has a good word to say about the service you provide.

      Far from being an alternative we’ve had to keep our ancient BT telephone line to cope with all the times you’re network stops working. Useless!

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore

      @ DJS

      It’s 9% according to the DCMS website here:

      https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Hs00bNsyRV1WoOt-fow3rsNXzpcKg26AsOWvk1bvJRk/edit#gid=7

      9% of 5,800 premises is 522, lowest take up of any project nationally. At a cost of £4.6m its £8.8k per connection!

      https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2017/12/devon-somerset-uk-expand-rollout-superfast-broadband.html

    • Avatar New_Londoner

      @Guy
      Extraordinary! You could have had FTTP for that, most likely for significantly less! Another example of incompetence in the CDS team?

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore

      @ New_Londoner

      CDS naivety is probably closer to the truth.

      A significant number of those 522 will be ‘free’ connections too, Airband ‘pays’ for land use and access to private electricity supplies by offering this.

      The more important question to my mind is why the take up % is so low. I have my own ideas but probably best kept to myself!

    • Avatar Joe

      @Guy Tbh its notable in the stats UK wide just how many people aren’t interested in a better connection even when offered

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore

      @ Joe

      I wouldn’t agree, the national average is 45%, so something is clearly wrong with this area at only 9%

      https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2018/12/2018-infrastructure-report-shows-state-of-uk-broadband-and-mobile.html

    • Avatar gerarda

      @guy The document you referred to looks at the take up at June 2018 when most of the phase 2 were in the early stages of delovery. 9% is certainly not the lowest take up, in fact the majority were zero.

    • Avatar Guy Cashmore

      @ gerarda

      Can’t disagree, I will FoI CDS and get the latest number. Local gossip says Airband are now actually losing customer on Dartmoor and Exmoor as the early adopters come to the end of their contract periods.

  2. Avatar Meadmodj

    No doubt better 4G coverage will assist farmers in many ways but I have concerns regarding the proposal of the NFU Vice President that it can be relied upon for safety. Farming involves a lot of metal/machinery and a tractor rolling upside down in a secluded gully may mean a signal is non existent. All of us have experienced phones loosing their signal in an areas that are well covered and can be corrected by simply moving a few feet. If incapacitated farmer can’t do that.
    If health and safety is that important the NFU should be looking at systems based on personal locator beacons (as used in maritime and the Australian outback) in the form of personally worn armbands or emergency cords within the tractors.

    • Avatar Joe

      Frankly the hastle/cost -v- risk just isn’t worth it in the UK for general farming. The outback is a rather different risk profile!

    • Avatar Meadmodj

      Units programmed for UK are available for just over £200. Global Rescue service is paid for by governments. The NFU may wish to call for better connectivity but farming families should be made aware of its limitations.
      It is not just about calling for help it is being found. My view is would be well worth it very remote areas for farmers/shepherds especially in winter.

    • Avatar Joe

      It doesn’t work well. Unless you buy all farm hands a device (high cost) you end up swapping it around and inevitably it gets forgotten or the wrong person has it when someone needs it quickly.

    • Avatar Jim Weir

      Large Commercial operations will have lone working alarms and systems already covered by H&S assessments.

      For general farming and farmers there is enough of a struggle to get them to use the safety equipment in place on equipment – such as PTO covers – you’ve not going to get them to take on more cost for a device they will not use.

      Mobile coverage and their point about better mobile coverage is perfectly valid using whatever arguement finds traction, be it safety or productivity etc.

    • Avatar Joe

      Tbh Jim if farmers actually followed the letter of the law on H&S nothing would get done.

    • Avatar Jim Weir

      @Joe very true, but there are some changes in behaviour / attitude that save from injury or death

      https://www.fwi.co.uk/business/business-management/health-and-safety/ground-breaking-pto-safety-scheme-expanded

    • Avatar Joe

      Yeah PTO is not a hard check/fix. Much of the other H&S stuff is just impossible.

  3. Avatar TheFacts

    Surprised no comment from our usual farmers wife!

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