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Calls for New Pre-Brexit Rural Broadband Strategy from UK Gov

Friday, March 1st, 2019 (12:02 am) - Score 1,511

The Rural Services Network (RSN) are today leading calls for the UK government to produce an “urgent comprehensive strategy for rural areas” in preparation for Brexit, which among other things demands more investment to boost the “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband roll-out and stronger mobile coverage targets.

According to Ofcom’s most recent report (here), some 94% of the United Kingdom can access a fixed line “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) ISP network, which rises to 97% in urban areas and falls to 74% in rural locations. Similarly geographic 4G mobile coverage in rural areas from all operators is 97% in urban locations, but only 62% for rural areas.

Clearly some big gaps exist and RSN’s new report warns that rural towns and villages “simply cannot afford to wait any longer for politicians to take their concerns seriously and act on them.” The group adds that the deep-seated challenges to the sustainability of rural communities and service delivery in rural areas “have been inadequately addressed by those in power for too long and the situation has become urgent.”

We should point out that this campaign isn’t just looking at broadband and mobile connectivity. The report also highlights problems with higher house prices, the brain drain as skilled people move away from rural communities, the rising withdrawal of bus services, weaknesses in health funding and so forth. But our focus will naturally be on the digital infrastructure side of things.

Graham Biggs, CEO of the Rural Services Network, said:

“Rural Communities are frequently overlooked in a policy environment dominated by urban thinking and policy concerns. This often means communities either miss out on the benefits or experience unintended consequences from policies which are poorly thought-through from a rural perspective.

It is time for this ‘rural mainstreaming’ to stop. People living in ours towns and villages simply cannot afford to wait any longer for politicians to take their concerns seriously and act on them.

If rural communities are to be sustainable, the Government must seize this opportunity to work with communities to produce a long-term, funded rural strategy which recognises the contribution rural areas make and have the potential to make to the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation as a whole.”

In fairness the £1.6bn+ state aid supported Broadband Delivery UK programme is continuing to expand the coverage of superfast broadband lines (potentially reaching 98% by the end of 2020). On top of that Ofcom are in the process of introducing a new 10Mbps+ Universal Service Obligation (USO) to help those in the final c.2% of premises (here).

The Government have also committed to extend geographic mobile network coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022 and Ofcom’s forthcoming auction of the 5G friendly 700MHz radio spectrum band includes supporting coverage obligations (here). Lest we forget the aspiration to achieve nationwide coverage of ultrafast “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband by 2033.

Nevertheless the campaigners want to see the Government go even further and they’ve outlined several key recommendations for digital infrastructure.

The Recommendations

A USO that is fit for purpose:

In the short term, the planned introduction (in 2020) of a broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) is welcome. However, the proposed USO level, at 10 Mbps, risks becoming out-of-date. Ofcom should review this prior to its introduction, not least because there will be pressure to leave the USO unchanged for a while to bed down.

When the USO is applied decisions about upgrading networks should be taken on a value for money basis and not just a cheapest solution basis. Whilst the cheap option may get premises or areas just over the 10 Mbps threshold, a value for money solution could deliver much higher speeds that result in more sustained benefits.

A focus on full fibre roll out:

The Government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) is welcome, setting a longer term goal for the nationwide roll out of full fibre networks. That technology should avoid rural areas falling behind again as demand for bandwidth continues to grow. Significant public funding, as indicated by the FTIR, is clearly justifiable given the market failure that would exist otherwise, with many rural areas considered uncommercial for the roll out.

The plans for a rural first (or outside-in) approach to using public funds are exactly what are required. Further announcements, how the goal will be turned into practice, will be eagerly awaited. The upcoming Spending Review needs to allocate funding, building on the £200 million mentioned in the 2018 Budget.

A drive to connect rural businesses:

Evidence from the Rural England and SRUC survey of rural businesses is that those with a superfast connection realise more business benefits and face fewer digital challenges than those still dependent on a slower connection. The survey report concludes that, in order to capitalise on the public investment in superfast networks, more businesses should be encouraged to upgrade (where they have the option to do so).

Government and local broadband partnerships should reinforce their efforts to promote the business benefits. This could include finding rural businesses which are already adopters and are willing to act as broadband champions among their peer group. Alongside this should be training and resources to help rural SMEs improve their digital skills.

A review of mobile connectivity:

Whilst mobile connectivity is improving, rural areas lag behind and there are particular rural issues, such as signal strength inside premises and signal loss for those on the move. Previous targets set for mobile network providers (as part of their licences) proved insufficient. It is imperative the regulator, Ofcom, sets sufficiently stretching targets when auctioning the next round of licenses.

These should apply equally to all awarded a licence and ensure many more rural communities gain access to mobile internet/data services (as well as basic voice/text services). The sharing of phone masts by providers, to address gaps in provision, should be supported and, if necessary, regulated for. Looking ahead, it is crucial that rural communities feature prominently in plans to develop 5G networks.

On the USO it’s worth pointing out that 10Mbps is a minimum speed and most of the c.600,000 premises set to benefit from it should generally expect something faster. Setting the USO higher than 10Mbps is also a bit of a tedious game to play as it could result in market distortions (e.g. overbuilding alternative network ISPs) and placing higher costs on the industry, which would invariably be passed on to consumers as price rises.

As for the FTIR and calls for more clarity or funding for the proposed “outside-in” approach to deployment. The Government has just outlined how some of the first £200m will be used in order to bring gigabit broadband to rural schools and hopefully surrounding homes (likely supported by connection vouchers). But this is still short of the up to £5bn in public investment that the FTIR suggested may be needed to tackle rural areas.

The difficulty for the Government is that at this point they’re clearly trying to encourage private investment to do as much of the work as possible through strategic funding and softer rules. All this could be undermined by suddenly placing a huge lump of public investment on the table, just as commercial deployments are getting into their stride.

On the other hand only a very few providers have managed to create a viable economic model of FTTP deployment in remote rural areas and there’s an argument to say that, if left up to them alone, achieving complete coverage could take several decades (an unacceptably long wait). But for now we’d expect the current government to continue their approach of encouragement, with gradual but targeted funding increases.

Nevertheless, eventually somebody will have to come back to this problem and place a much bigger wad of money on the table, particularly if they intend to achieve the 2033 aspiration on time. The obvious question mark is whether or not this will occur under the current government or be left up to a future administration. As leaders and parties change, so do policies.

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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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20 Responses
  1. CarlT says:

    *If* the economy suffers cash will be needed for other things so B4RN or similar community schemes may be needed. Some DIY.

  2. AnotherTim says:

    Unfortunately the way many BDUK schemes have organised their rollouts it means there are lots of very small orphaned groupings of properties that are not viable for a BARN style DIY fix, as the cost of the backhaul can’t be shared between enough properties to make it affordable. If that wasn’t the case I’d have had superfast broadband several years ago. Unfortunately >£15k per property for the backhaul makes it unaffordable.

  3. AnotherTim says:

    “All this could be undermined by suddenly placing a huge lump of public investment on the table, just as commercial deployments are getting into their stride.”
    The problem I have with this is that commercial deployments are only interested in urban areas. Waiting until they are complete before tackling uncommercial areas just means that those areas become even less commercially viable, and meanwhile their local economies are decimated. 22% of rural jobs are home based. People in rural areas NEED decent broadband. Not so they can stream Netflix, but so that they can actually earn a living. And they need it urgently.

  4. Brian says:

    On thing that seems to get missed when taking about such as 4g coverage, the achievable speeds in rural areas are so much slower than in urban areas.
    It seems to be also forgotten how long people have been waiting for improvements, I was told BB improvements coming soon when my daughter was in primary, she’s now in 2nd year at university, and we are no closer to anything happening.
    The BDUK upgrades in the area have been to upgrade those with the best speeds in the village centres, close to the exchange, drastically reducing the viability of boosting provision to the rural properties away from the village centres.

    1. AnotherTim says:

      @Brian, I maintain that I’d now have much better broadband if BDUK hadn’t existed, as it would have been viable for a community solution. The way BDUK have operated means that it is unlikely I’ll have anything other than mediocre 4G during my remaining working life (and I work from home). Although my area is “in plan”, there is in fact no plan, no dates, no progress. Any solution is now further away than it was 5 years ago.

    2. Rahul says:

      The truth is, the problem is happening across all areas with ‘Exchange Only Lines’ regardless of rural or urban areas.

      There’s a new residential building just 30 seconds walk from the other side of the road under construction from where I live in Aldgate area near City of London. I was a little shocked to find out that they now have both overbuild FTTP networks from Hyperoptic and from Openreach already gone live. Of-course as a newly built building this is normal and should be expected.

      Yet I am on EO Line which says on a plan for superfast but haven’t started work yet since around 2009/2010 it has been that way. It’s a decade now and our area has not been upgraded to FTTC. It is already long overdue & I think FTTC is very unlikely to happen anymore because even if it did at this stage it will delay the FTTP upgrade even further unless an altnet provider comes!

      This fibre checker phrase “but we haven’t started work yet” is exactly why we are waiting all these years with no progress. If there was a clear concrete plan and timetable for a new DSLAM cabinet to be installed this will have happened ages ago by now with a live date.

    3. AnotherTim says:

      I don’t expect there will be any more FTTC builds. Personally I think most people on EO lines will be lucky if anything better is ever provided. I don’t believe USO will help, as the cost limit will be exceeded in many of the remaining cases – after all it is cost that has prevented them being upgraded before now. I expect that as soon as the 98% superfast target is reached that will be end of BDUK and similar schemes, and the FTTP rollout will be left to the commercial developments. The gov will “wait and see” how far the commercial rollout can go before any more public money is put in.
      You only have to read sites like this to see how the FTTP rollouts are progressing – with more and more companies announcing ambitious plans.
      Of course, you don’t read so much about EO lines being upgraded, or the announced plans actually achieving their targets, because that doesn’t happen.

    4. craski says:

      Still quite a few FTTC AIO infill cabs going in around my area where Superfast coverage is still only ~75%

    5. AnotherTim says:

      @craski, that’s interesting. Is that under a BDUK scheme? If so which one? It couldn’t happen in my area as the remaining 30% of properties that are still EO are too dispersed to make any infill cabs viable. They could route us through the two existing fibre cabs, but most wouldn’t reach the superfast threshold, which is why Fastershire vetoed that as an approach.

    6. craski says:

      Aberdeenshire. BDUK is still putting in FTTC on several local exchanges, several cabinets are only serving ~30 properties. We do have some small pockets of FTTP but on my exchange that’s less than 2%. Having missed out on FTTC for so long, I’m personally hoping they don’t bring it to my area at this late stage

    7. AnotherTim says:

      In my area there are 8 remaining EO bundles, so probably no more than 20 properties in any one, and then each covers a linear mile or so making it impossible to position a cabinet where every property could get 30Mbps. If Fastershire had gone with the plan BT had proposed most of us would have got FTTC, but not everyone would have got 30Mbps. It was considered preferable not to upgrade any of us as that was better value for money.

    8. Rahul says:

      The last place I saw on Roadworks map in London on EO Line was Hanbury Street that was upgraded to FTTC in October 2018. Unfortunately that cabinet didn’t serve my area even though my property is only 0.4 miles to the cabinet and initially the Checker showed Connect stage. I was super excited but after 3 months it was reverted back to In Scope.

      The problem is that people like us who have been waiting on EO Lines for FTTC have already waited 10 years and now it feels like we have to wait potentially for another 10 years for FTTP from Openreach.

      That means our best bet in urban areas such as London is to hope that an altnet provider such as Hyperoptic, Community Fibre, Virgin Media, Vodafone, etc installs their service.

      If EO Lines get upgraded to FTTC now then that will defeat the whole purpose of the Fibre First Programme. What I’d like to see is Openreach upgrade the 3 million premises by end of 2020 to all customers who do not have FTTC! I’d consider it as injustice if existing FTTC customers get upgraded to FTTP before the ones on EO Lines with no FTTC.

      I would also support the 2% of customers in the UK on USO to get FTTP as they have suffered for too long. I got to feel sorry for the people in rural areas on EO Lines because most of them don’t even have altnet providers other than Gigaclear.

      FTTC upgrade now would just hamper the FTTP deployment. This would just send us a message that Openreach have no ambition to upgrade these areas to FTTP in near future. However, having said that if we have to wait another 10 years for FTTP then I’m still happy to get FTTC in the meantime as that would be better than nothing.

    9. craski says:

      I gave up waiting for BDUK reaching us years ago and we now have a fixed wireless service set up supplying about 12 premises which is why FTTC, by the time it arrives at us will be a non event. I’m personally not going to get that excited about the Openreach van rocking up and installing a cabinet full of technology that many areas have been enjoying for almost a decade and are already having those cabinets overbuilt with FTTP. If the cabinet goes in now, we’ll be at the very end of the next wave of updates again as the updates focus on upgrading the easy areas all over again and so we’ll be lucky if we see FTTP in another 10 years.

      Fixed wireless works great but access to affordable back-haul bandwidth is still a problem. If some parts got FTTP, using fixed wireless we could take a decent service to those still plugging along on slow speeds at the very edges of the Openreach copper network.

    10. Rahul says:

      @craski: Yeah I have tried using WiFi hotspot. There is an O2 WiFi hotspot that even gave me 27Mbps but that only worked when I stretched my arm and hand with my phone out of the balcony here in my highrise building. This was obviously a risky experiment to do because if I had dropped it I would’ve lost and smashed my phone.

      This means I need to probably install a WiFi antenna that can stick out of the balcony in order to catch signal. But I haven’t tried that yet. Also the O2 only offers up to 10GB allowance a month using this free service.

      Basically there’s no WiFi hotspot signal that is catchable from inside my home other than from the balcony. Not to mention with wireless there tends to be higher pings which is not suitable for online gaming.

      Obviously if Openreach did upgrade us to FTTC then we won’t expect to get an FTTP upgrade from them either. I think they probably know that, that’s why they aren’t giving us FTTC yet especially since EO Line is expensive to upgrade. Because if an altnet FTTP provider comes then Openreach knows it’s game over everyone with FTTC will switch to the FTTP altnet provider. Several residential buildings from different managements tend to have Hyperoptic here and perhaps that’s why my Bishopsgate exchange area isn’t being upgraded to FTTC yet. While on the other hand my management team company has refused to give permission to Hyperoptic even though they were happy to install the service. I’m in fact the Hyperoptic Champion of my building & I convinced 30+ people to register interest 3 years ago but management doesn’t respect that and are saying Fibre is not their priority at this stage.

      I think that living in urban city areas gives us a little bit more hope for the future as there’s Hyperoptic, Community Fibre, Vodafone, etc that are more likely to serve these areas should Openreach not give us FTTP. But in rural areas there’s usually only one dominant force whether it be Gigaclear, B4RN, KCOM, Gigler, etc. The problem with this is that they tend to exploit rural people (with the exception of B4RN). They rev up the prices of their FTTP packages way too much as there’s no other rural FTTP competitor serving the same particular areas. For example Gigaclear 1Gbps is £75 a month vs £39 with Hyperoptic in urban areas.

      There’s also the case where in rural areas FTTC does not give you better speeds than standard ADSL copper due to the length of copper being too distant from the cabinet to property, something that’s less likely to be an issue in urban areas.

  5. AnotherTim says:

    My area was supposed to be FFTP’s by Gigaclear by the end of 2018. There has not been a single property in my Lot connected yet. There are no longer any dates for rollout, there are no published plans, and there is no progress being made. The last news (before the latest delays) was that the build in my local area might start in 2020.
    EO upgrades will never happen in my area as there are “plans” to provide FTTP by Gigaclear.
    Improving 4G backhaul is the better option IMO. It would be faster to achieve, cheaper, and could actually happen.

    1. TomD says:

      Gigaclear have probably “claimed” your area for a limited 3 years since the OMR. What in practice will actually happen when they haven’t delivered after 3 years? Has this happened anywhere?
      We are nearing 3 years since the Essex 2016 OMR without delivery from Gigaclear. Will the BDUK project open the area up and offer to Openreach? If not what was the point of the 3 year limit in the first place?

    2. AnotherTim says:

      I don’t think anyone knows the answer. But I suspect that the answer will be to give Gigaclear more time – much more time. Which I think wold be the wrong decision in some cases, as I have no confidence in their ability to actually deploy FTTP in anything like the timescale that rural areas need. The big problem I see is that BDUK bodies see the awarding of a contract as the solution, when it fact it is the successful completion of that contract which is the solution – and those are quite different things.

    3. Gadget says:

      I do not think anyone will be impressed if, come the Broadband USO, the response is “sorry your area is under contract with (insert tender winner here) and so you will have to wait until they deliver.

  6. Liam Fox says:

    We can spend £350 million per week on broadband once we Brexit.

  7. Stanley Chelchowski says:

    As one of the 600,000 premises that will benefit from the USO what can I expect?
    I live in a village of 1,000 souls however my house is ~1 km. from the one and only cabinet.
    I cannot work out how I and the 20 or so houses around me are going to benefit. What will be the affordable solution?

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