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Report Slams Inadequate Rural Mobile Signals and Broadband Lines

Monday, February 11th, 2019 (12:01 am) - Score 1,797

New research from Rural England CIC, which found that mobile calls cannot be made inside 33% of rural buildings on any network (vs 3% in urban premises), has warned that people living in UK rural areas are being “cut off from building businesses” and accessing digital services due to “inadequate” connectivity.

The report (‘State of Rural Services’), which will be launched today in Parliament and looks at vital services across key areas (i.e. health, public transport, libraries, young people’s services and retail etc.), also found that a 4G (mobile broadband) connection cannot be accessed in more than half (58%) of rural premises, compared with just 17% in cities.

On top of that the report also uses the latest data from Ofcom (here) to highlight how 11% of rural premises could not get a 10Mbps+ fixed line connection and 24% could not get a 30Mbps (superfast broadband) connection. The equivalent urban figures are 1% and 3% respectively.

Overall it claims that around 17% of England’s population lives in a rural area and nearly a quarter of those are over the age of 65 (they’re particularly vulnerable when underinvestment occurs in healthcare and declining high streets). Not to mention the Government’s plan to digitise GP services and process universal credit applications online, which is all well and good unless the local connectivity is poor.

Population resident in rural areas of England (2016) 9,370,200

Per cent of England’s population that is resident in rural areas 17.0%

Rate of population growth in rural England from 2011 to 2016 +2.6%

Per cent of rural population that is aged 65 or over 24.1%

Number of registered businesses in rural England (2016/17) 547,000

People employed by registered businesses in rural England 3,517,000

According to the research, less public funding is directed towards rural residents than in urban areas, despite the higher cost of providing essential services such as social care, education and public transport in rural parts. For example, local authority expenditure on public transport is significantly higher in predominantly urban areas with 63% more spent on bus subsidies, and 348% more on discretionary concessionary fares.

Other Key findings from the Report

» Take up of superfast broadband services is growing. In 2017 some 39% of rural premises that could access such a connection had opted to take it up.

» There is a 36% discrepancy in funding per head that rural local authorities receive for public health duties in comparison with their urban counterparts.

» Young people from rural areas tend to score worse on a number of key public health indicators – risky behaviour, alcohol consumption, smoking and being bullied.

» 89% of rural journeys are made by car (73% for urban residents).

» In 2017 half of farmers only had dial-up fixed line connection speeds (below 2 Mbps).

» Local authority 2017/18 budgets per resident for library services were 25% less in predominantly rural areas than in predominantly urban areas.

» In 2016/2017, 191 bus services were reduced and 202 were withdrawn altogether from shire areas.

» Residents of small rural settlements now travel 4,177 more miles annually on all forms of transport than their urban counterparts (including on foot). They spend on average 384 hours (or 16 days) every year on the go.

» With the number of over-85s expected to double over the next 20 years in rural areas, there are serious concerns about rising demands upon local health services, yet the report finds that almost 30% of rural residents live more than 30 minutes’ drive time from a major hospital, rising to 90 per cent if they are travelling by public transport or walking. Over 40% live more than an hour away by public transport or walking.

» Business satisfaction with connectivity is lowest in remote rural areas and among those whose job requires them to travel. Research on digital potential found rural businesses are concerned about their connection reliability, as well as its speed.

» The main digital benefits identified by rural businesses are remote working, access to customers/suppliers and business efficiency. Benefits are felt most by businesses that have superfast connections.

» More than half of rural businesses face digital constraints other than connectivity. This includes access to digital/IT support, workforce IT skills and recruiting those skills. Addressing such constraints could add significantly to rural productivity.

At this point we’d like to highlight that the above reference to sub-2Mbps speeds being “dial-up” connections is a little confusing. Narrowband dial-up services, which have now largely ceased to exist, tended to offer peak speeds of around 56Kbps (64-128Kbps on ISDN) or 0.056Mbps if you prefer. By comparison the earliest ADSL copper broadband lines started at around 0.5-2Mbps.

Brian Wilson, Report Author, said:

“Nearly a fifth of people in England live in rural areas, yet the evidence shows that many of them face inadequate services, such as being unable to make mobile phone calls or being without transport options. Two years after we released the first State of Rural Services report it seems clear that rural residents frequently still lose out in terms of funding and access to services.

The challenges facing rural communities are likely to grow in the coming years and this will be reflected in their service needs. If policies and service delivery were properly rural proofed it seems evident that those needs would be much better met.”

Similarly Graham Biggs, CEO of the Rural Services Network, has warned that the “country faces a time bomb” if nothing is done to address the needs of rural residents. However the current Government has already committed to extend geographic mobile network coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022. In keeping with that Ofcom’s forthcoming auction of the 700MHz mobile spectrum band will come attached to new obligations.

The 700MHz Coverage Obligation

The binding coverage rules mean that up to two winning bidders would each have to, within 4 years of the award:

1. Extend good, outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within four years of the award.

2. Improve coverage for at least 140,000 homes and offices which they do not already cover. This means new coverage will be targeted at areas that are harder to reach; and

3. Provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas. This will ensure operators transform coverage in areas where it is lacking, rather than meeting the rules by just boosting existing signals.

Of course the above assumes that mobile operators don’t end up delaying the auction through more disputes and that deployment of related infrastructure is built without the usual problems with planning permission, wayleave agreements and so forth.

Meanwhile the Broadband Delivery UK programme is still hoping to ensure that around 98% of premises can access a fixed “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) service by the end of 2020. After that the industry funded 10Mbps+ Universal Service Obligation (USO) is expected to help tackle those stuck in the final 2%.

Leave a Comment
9 Responses
  1. Walter G M Willcox says:

    There are a small number of quite large rural areas who are thankfully provided with a Gigabit broadband service by the likes of B4RN so escape from purgatory with the likes of Sure Signal.

    Note also that those who suffer without a sufficient 4G signal are likely to be even worse off if 5G is ever deployed rurally.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      Why would deploying 5G alongside 4G make them worse off? The 700MHz band seems set to be used for 5G and it will come attached to various new coverage obligations. I can see Carrier Aggregation then coming into play in order to help boost speeds via a combo of different bands.

  2. Meadmodj says:

    There is a difference between social inclusion and outright subsidy. For those that cannot achieve 10Mbps fixed broadband (in any form) should have had more done long ago and Ofcom could do more to ensure a socially inclusive entry level product to all. Effective and low cost. We still have it for telephony but Ofcom in my view have failed with broadband and the USO is too little too late.

    If all premises had a minimum effective broadband then issues such as indoor mobile would not be so impacting (WIFI calling). Any subsidy should be for outside mobile and a broadband USO. Initiatives such at LFFN should also be focused on rural not used to inject commercial competition in towns/cities.

    However there is the point that for the many of the rural communities it may be partly due to behaviour. Superfast take-up is relatively low, reducing its return/profit (OR investment) and if the demand was there then more independent ISP providers could emerge within the local communities. Just as rural villages have also lost their local stores, post offices etc it is simply because they did’t get used meaning they were no longer viable.

    1. AnotherTim says:

      I think there are several reasons for low take-up in rural areas. One reason is the demographic of rural areas being weighted towards the elderly, who don’t tend to use social media and streaming services as much as younger age groups, so if they can get a reasonable ADSL or VDSL connection that is enough.
      Another reason is the cost – the rural altnets tend to charge significantly more than the national ISPs who only offer ADSL or perhaps VDSL in rural areas. The cost is relevant not just to domestic properties but also for businesses. Gigaclear are due (sometime after 2020) to build FTTP in my area – as well as being a home-based worker I also run a small business from my premises which apparently makes it ineligible for the domestic tariffs. The cheapest business connection costs over £100pm – which is over 50% of the business turnover, so it is totally out of the question. Lots of rural businesses have low turnovers, so expensive broadband is just unaffordable, and the Business ADSL2+ from Plusnet (or similar) for around £20pm will remain the only viable option.

    2. Meadmodj says:

      Agree that is why I use the term socially inclusive. FTTP may actually make it worse as entry level products may be £45/m. ISPs should be mandated to provided a USO entry level product for say £12/m.

      The government should use LFFN in rural to get the back bone out there so that local ISPs in rural can utilise. Currently the government is incentivising competition in large towns by subsidising local authority networks. That money should go to rural communities.

    3. AnotherTim says:

      I agree about getting a backbone in place as a priority. I think BDUK should concentrate on getting backhaul established to areas that currently have none – that would change the commercial viability of lots of areas for altnets. In my area there are no fixed-wireless providers as there is no backhaul available. I have spoken to several fixed wireless ISPs that would consider serving my area as soon as backhaul is available. I have mentioned on other threads that BT refused to quote for a leased line or FoD as the nearest aggregation point is 11 miles away – that cost is obviously too much for me, but it is also too much for altnets. Cut that cost and what is commercially viable would change.

    4. Guy Cashmore says:

      It is no surprise to me that Superfast take-up has been low in my rural area, the BDUK program only installed one cabinet on my exchange, it is located immediately outside the exchange. This has the effect making VDSL available only to those customers who already had excellent ADSL, typically the full 24 Mbps. The customers on long lines who really needed help got nothing.

    5. AnotherTim says:

      @Guy, pretty much the same happened in my area – the whole exchange was EO, and they built two fibre cabinets 4 years ago. One was in the centre of the village, one was near the exchange. Fastershire wouldn’t allow any of the EO bundles where some lines wouldn’t reach 30Mbps to be routed through the cabinets, so only those people that had decent ADSL got FTTC – everyone else is still waiting.
      There is very little visible progress under Fastershire – we no longer have a target date for FTTC.
      I note that the Rural England report lists the Forest of Dean as one of the worst areas of the country for superfast coverage. Unfortunately it is set to remain that way for some time.

  3. Brian says:

    Same again with long lines. Routed through cabinet, but all the cabinets are within a few hundred meters of the exchange. So all properties on longer lines with poor broadband left on it as still too far from the cabinet.

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