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Lords Report Propose Fixes for Poor UK Rural Broadband and Mobile

Saturday, April 27th, 2019 (8:27 am) - Score 3,483

A new cross-party report from the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy has warned that rural communities across the UK are still being “ignored and underrated,” with many still suffering from poor fixed line broadband ISP and mobile network connectivity. But they also recommend some possible solutions.

At present around 96% of premises can access a fixed “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) service, which is partly thanks to the £1.7bn+ state aid funded Broadband Delivery UK project. Similarly 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% a year earlier) from all four mobile operators or 91% from at least one operator (EE).

In fairness we expect BDUK to help further extend superfast broadband to cover over 97% of premises by March 2020. The Government has similarly committed to extend geographic mobile cover to 95% of the UK by 2022 and Ofcom’s future auction of the 700MHz mobile band will come attached to new obligations (here), but those will only extend outdoor 4G or 5G data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area within 4 years of the award.

Naturally the bits that get missed out by these targets predominantly tend to reflect a good number of often remote and sparse rural communities, such as hill farmers and tiny villages. So far the main connectivity solution that has been developed to tackle this is the forthcoming Universal Service Obligation (USO), which upon request will aim to deploy a 10Mbps or faster broadband service within 12 months (starting end of 2019).

The Government are also adopting an “outside-in” approach to deployment of future Gigabit “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband networks under the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (i.e. tackling rural areas at the same time as urban ones) and forthcoming rural Gigabit broadband voucher scheme. But it will still take many years and billions more in public investment in order to achieve the plan for “nationwide” coverage by 2033.

What more could be done?

The question thus becomes, what more could be done to help those rural communities that are likely to be waiting a long time for something better than the broadband USO or decent 4G / 5G mobile coverage. It’s a question that is frequently asked (here, here and here) but one that is rarely answered with much concrete detail.

Lord Foster of Bath, Chair of the Committee, said:

“Rural communities and the economies in them have been ignored and underrated for too long. We must act now to reverse this trend, but we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked.

A rural strategy would address challenges and realise potential in struggling and under-performing areas, and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further. Doing nothing is not an option.”

As part of this the committee has proposed a series of recommendations, which we’ll list and then examine. The crux of all this appears to centre around a call for mobile roaming in UK rural areas and an increase to the £3,400 cost threshold for the USO (inc. review of the USO speed).

The Recommendations

* DCMS and Ofcom should also identify what further actions are necessary to address poor mobile connectivity in areas unlikely to benefit from the spectrum auction.

* Ofcom must improve access to information about digital connectivity. This should include regularly updated information about when residents and businesses can expect to be connected to digital infrastructure, connectivity options for communities and details of providers operating in their local area, and regular reporting on the progress of 5G rollout in local areas.

* We welcome the principle of the USO which will give people in the UK the right to request a decent broadband connection. However, we believe the upload and download speeds are too modest in the USO commitment and should be reviewed along with the £3,400 payment threshold so that rural homes and businesses are not excluded. Ofcom has a duty to review the USO if directed to do so by the Government.

* While we recognise that Ofcom has updated their aggregate statistics on rural mobile coverage better to align with consumer experience, we believe it should be required to develop an accurate evidence base for consumers about phone coverage in specific locations. Without this, it is not possible to identify the full scale of the problem or to assess how best to go about fixing it.

* We welcome the proposal that Ofcom should review the option of introducing roaming in rural areas to address partial not-spots and would urge Ofcom to begin this review as a matter of urgency. Government and Ofcom should also encourage mobile network operators to share transmission masts more often at locations where they offer a practical means to improve rural connectivity. Mast sites should nonetheless be chosen sensitively, especially in areas of high landscape value.

* Local and national governments must do more to realise the potential of improving digital skills in rural areas, including supporting the establishment of digital enterprise hubs; promoting networking opportunities; facilitating knowledge sharing and the dissemination of good practice among rural businesses; and enabling more effective IT support for small rural businesses and start-ups.

The idea of Rural Roaming is simple enough. Essentially, whenever you pass into a rural area where your mobile operator can’t receive a service then the signal would be allowed to roam onto another operator’s network (like when you go abroad), where a service may still be present. Technically difficult but certainly possible.

However rural roaming is not particularly popular among operators that have investment the most in building their networks into challenging rural areas (e.g. EE). This is because it effectively gives a free ride to rivals who haven’t made the same investment, thus removing a competitive advantage and stifling the attraction of future such investments (extending rural cover isn’t very profitable).

Instead mobile operators are currently debating a different approach of mutually beneficial mast sharing in areas of only partial coverage (i.e. sharing of mast space for radio kit, provided this is reciprocated by both sides – Ofcom acting as referee).

Getting the details right for mast sharing will be difficult but this does represent one partial solution (here), although we think allowing taller masts should also be considered. However doing that without local opposition has often proven to be quite difficult (here), which is despite the fact that one tall mast could mean the removal of several smaller ones (we already allow much more imposing wind turbines).

As for the USO’s cost threshold, it’s worth remembering that this is an industry funded initiative and some properties are so remote that connecting them may cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds. Suffice to say that you’d have to raise the cost threshold quite a bit in order to truly cover everybody and as the industry pays then that also means price hikes for broadband consumers.

Likewise boosting the USO speeds too soon would make the programme even more expensive (i.e. yet more consumer bill increases) and potentially also distort the market for alternative network providers (e.g. funding being used to overbuild a smaller rival network that couldn’t afford to be a USO supplier itself). On the other hand some of the slower and older altnets do need to upgrade their networks in order to keep pace with demand.

The report also seems to overlook that the USO allows build costs to be shared (i.e. where network infrastructure is also shared) between premises to determine whether the cost of provision to an individual premises would fall below £3,400. For example, if a cabinet served 100 premises and the cost of deploying FTTC was £100K, then an assumed take-up of 70% would mean that the cost of upgrading that cabinet could be just £1,429 for each premises (Ofcom’s example).

In any case Ofcom’s analysis of the £3,400 threshold suggested that it could enable coverage for up to 99.8% per cent of UK premises, thus some may consider that imposing a significant threshold increase just to tackle 0.2% may not be the best value for money, particularly for end-users who would end up paying the penalty. Alternatives like Satellite do exist for such isolated homes, but those services are far from ideal (better LEO satellites are coming).

Suffice to say that solving the issue of rural connectivity is rarely ever a simple matter but we can at least be thankful that the problem area is shrinking and today it’s already significantly smaller than only a few years ago. Check out the full cross-party report.

NOTE: The USO already includes a requirement for its speed to be reviewed when the uptake of superfast broadband reaches 75%, which is still a fair few years away.

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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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48 Responses
  1. NE555 says:

    “we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked”

    Basic services like electricity, gas, water, postal delivery etc all cost far more to deliver in rural areas than urban ones, and yet are charged at the same price to the user.

    But I presume that’s not the “clear inequality” which is being referred to here 🙂

    1. AnotherTim says:

      With utilities such as gas and electricity, the pricing is set regionally – so a property in one area may pay a different amount to one in another area. Also remember that many rural areas don’t have gas or mains drainage at all, so it is difficult to use those as a model for rural superfast broadband unless you accept that some areas can’t have it at all.

    2. CarlT says:

      I live in the largest city in Western Europe, if not the entire continent without a genuine mass transit system but I guess that’s fine.

    3. AnotherTim says:

      Poor you, how do you cope without a genuine mass transit system? At least where I live there are 5 buses a day (Mon-Fri).

    4. Joe says:

      Not sure there are 5 buses a month where I live. I seem to remember back in the day you could ride in the Royal Mail Post bus

  2. chris conder says:

    If the support went to the altnets they can deliver a better service to the rural areas than the incumbent. As several altnets have proved.

    1. AnotherTim says:

      And some altnets are awarded a contract, and take years to make no progress at all.

    2. FibreFred says:

      What “support” are we talking about?

    3. CarlT says:

      You want the altnets to be forced to spend their own money providing under the USO?

      Even you guys with the free wayleaves were spending roughly £1k per premises passed. You okay with people being able to demand altnets spend £3.4k reaching them?

  3. Optimist says:

    I can’t see the situation improving as long as landowners are allowed to collect high rents from the providers of communications infrastructure, rendering the investment uneconomic. Business rates on cables should be abolished too, as HMRC receives VAT levied on telco bills as it is.

    BTW what was the outcome of that dispute in Derbyshire where the telco was told to reduce the height of their masts, meaning they could not serve many of their customers?

    1. Joe says:

      They fixed the high rents issue (so badly that they are no offering landowners a pittance and the gov are having to try to fix their fix!)

    2. Optimist says:

      Thanks for the correction, Joe – I hadn’t realised the rent issue had been fixed!

  4. AnotherTim says:

    While it is true that “the USO allows build costs to be shared”, I don’t think the example of sharing a £100k FTTC cabinet between 100 properties is the likely situation. In my region the properties that can’t get superfast (fewer than 82% can) tend to be in groupings such that perhaps a dozen could be served by one FTTC cabinet – that increases the cost per property to several times the USO cap.
    Unless the cap is increased significantly, there are lots of properties that won’t benefit from the USO. IMO the only viable option is a cheaper method – 4G or fixed wireless being the ones that seem most obvious to me.

    1. Fastman says:

      really who ever even suggested that FTTC was the answer to USO

    2. Joe says:

      Building new FTTC cabinets can work for USO in some more niche cases but its not the best long term solution.

    3. AnotherTim says:

      @Fastman, that was the example in the article.

    4. Jim Weir says:

      FTTC was still a USO option but even BT Group acknowledged that the scope for AIO infill is pretty tiny.

      Ofcom use the cab example to demonstrate the aggregation / takeup calculation as a lot of people thought they’d get £3400 each to go spend with a supplier and grouping together could have x times £3400 as a pot of money.

      Really for “cab” you could replace the word with, “fibre path, OLT port, splitter & manifold” and the example still shows the same concept but is much harder to read

    5. NE555 says:

      “groupings such that perhaps a dozen could be served by one FTTC cabinet”

      Groupings of up to 32 can be served directly by FTTP from a single fibre splitter – which needs no cabinet and no power. It can be stuck on a pole or in an underground chamber, and the fibre backhaul to the aggregation node is the same as a cabinet would need.

      But I have still seen small clusters of EO properties being given an FTTC cabinet. It does seem ridiculous.

      The only advantage I can see is that it avoids the cost of connecting the individual properties – each one involving drilling through the wall and installing an ONT – whereas FTTC re-uses the existing copper.

    6. AnotherTim says:

      “Groupings of up to 32 can be served directly by FTTP from a single fibre splitter … and the fibre backhaul to the aggregation node is the same as a cabinet would need.”
      Yes. but the nearest aggregation node to my house is 11 miles away (as the cable flies), so just as unaffordable with respect to the USO cap.
      Annoyingly, the nearest cable is about 20 yards away, but that feeds other peoples FTTC cabinets.

  5. Joe says:

    “However rural roaming is not particularly popular among operators that have investment the most in building their networks into challenging rural areas (e.g. EE). ”

    I just don’t buy this argument (not your point mark but theres) You mandate rural roaming, you mandate that providers can’t change customers more for roaming, you mandate a rate the roaming provider pays to the hosting provider (so EE in your example are benefiting from their better network) at a rate high enough to incentivise the roaming provider to want to build its own masts/share.

    1. Jim Weir says:

      That wouldn’t work Joe, Network B (with no rural masts) would end up charging customers more and ultimately then would loose market share very quickly, thus loosing profitability and then the case to invest is harder.

    2. Joe says:

      Not sure that is true as diff providers have diff not spots. But the additional tariff only needs to be high enough that its not advantageous to not invest not so prohibitive that its going to bring down the company. They are already likely to be losing market share if they don’t have coverage so its not a one way bet.

      Allowing the present situation is not acceptable.

    3. Jim Weir says:

      True, but the trouble with mobile customers is they move around!

      In fairness to EE they have historically invested far more in coverage than many others, they are simply not going to roll over to give other networks roaming access for little return – it would need to be punitive access costs to make it viable.

      Unfortunately customers want both cheap prices and coverage. You can’t go to cheap operator who has not invested but offers everything package for £10 and then complain their coverage is not as good as 95% operator who charge £45 for the same package.

      Coverage obligations on licensing haven’t solved this – the solution is the operators have to invest more – the best way to do that is to make it easier to build bigger mast quicker.

      Other countries with beautiful landscapes manage to have mega masts without ruining the view, and have far better coverage from multiple operators.

  6. Joe says:

    Well that’s true but its a paradox:

    If the costs of roaming (charges) are too high then the cost of more spectrum/masts to fix (their coverage) is probably is too high as well. Not sure how you square that circle. (Higher masts/mast sharing helps but only gets you so far. Shared backhaul and a industry owned masts might work in some ‘uneconomic for any provider’ cases)

    But all the suggestions that seem to come out bar some form of roaming involve crossing ones fingers and hoping for the best – ie likely not to change very much very soon.

  7. Brian Heslop says:

    The biggest failure of rural broadband provision is not simply failing to provide it to rural properties, is the failure to provide information to householders on what is or isn’t going to be done and in what time frame, with the addition of Superfast Scotland providing information that was simply wrong. If you know what is or isn’t going to happen its possible to make your own plans.
    The suggestion of USO clubbing together for FTTC seems farcical. The £3400 limit will serverely limit what properties can be boosted, partially by the choice of technology employed by such as openreach, so example choosing not to use repeaters, which would give a low cost solution to longer lines.
    I undoutably could have been in a different position if we hadn’t been lied to about forthcoming provision five years ago, and we’re still held in limbo by the R100 project.

  8. CarlT says:

    Before I read the article: this is going to involve me, as an urbanite, paying more in taxes and/or more for services both of which I already do, to subsidise whatever the Lords has in mind, isn’t it?

    1. CarlT says:

      Yes indeed it is. I suppose the money has to come from somewhere.

      I think politicians need to remember that people are the source of all the money. People pay for the goods and services that give corporations their money to subsidise things, people pay the taxes that government spend.

      They are far too ready to agree to spend our money on things people want rather than things that people need.

      Broadband provision is a hot button topic and a buzz word, but it should be noted that the £3,400 to bring 10Mb to a single property under the USO would bring FTTP to between 7 and 11 urban premises so this is really heavily skewed.

    2. Joe says:

      While I somewhat agree with the conversation you’re having with yourself 🙂 and setting aside we also cross subsidise utilities the relative value of fttp in rural is far greater than urban in most cases. ie much of the fibre first urban is going to places where speed is generally ok and other providers like VM often exist as well. All the rural fttp is going to places with terrible speeds and no alternatives. So the economic gain is greater /person even if not /£.

    3. GNewton says:

      @Joe: Yours is a valid point. We really need to compare the premises with uptake for a particular fibre network installer, not the premises passed.

  9. Mark says:

    The areas left now are the mostly the ones who don’t want coverage, there perceived as health hazards and unsightly objects, they even had trouble getting green cabins for broadband,the relaxing of planning laws still can’t help build in those areas,20 years later and numerous planning applications rejected, sums up my area.

    1. AnotherTim says:

      Perhaps it is true that your area doesn’t want coverage, but it most certainly isn’t true for most areas.

  10. James Johnson says:

    They should have set thresholds for being allowed to build overlap.
    Example :
    If Area A already had Supplier A providing 100+Mbps then Supplier B wouldn’t be allowed to build in Area A until Supplier B had deployed in Area’s B, C and D.
    Essentially for each overlap they wanted to build they’d have to build 3 non-overlapped.

    Competition for the ‘hot’ areas would force them to supply the rural not-spots. Once coverage was 99.9% then the threshold could be removed.

  11. Granola says:

    Isn’t the USO already covered by satellite such as big blu etc ?

    1. Jim Weir says:

      The USO excludes satellite broadband – it doesn’t meet the technical specifications.

      Satellite remains the connection of last resort

  12. Roger_Gooner says:

    There is very limited overbuilding in the UK as there are still many urban areas (not to mention rural areas) without fibre.

    Even when there is a mature market I think that the operators will have a gentleman’s agreement not to overbuild each others’ networks.

    1. Joe says:

      Fair bit of overbuild now/ongoing in the fibre first cities (OR-v-VM).

    2. CarlT says:

      Can’t really call this overbuild IMHO. Cable overbuilt BT a while back, BT are just upgrading existing network.

      When I think of overbuild I’m thinking more of an altnet overbuilding an existing FTTP network.

    3. Joe says:

      Is Fib just the ‘existing’ network though. FTTC is but FttP often does much more its own thing route wise. There’s quite a lot of ongoing altnets building on bt’s turf now and indeed some cases of fttp altnets overbuilding wireless altnets.

    4. 125us says:

      That would be a cartel Roger. It gets people sent to prison under the Competition Act.

      There’s lots of overbuild because the operators have the same geo analysis that ranks the country in terms of lowest cost to pass the most dwellings, overlaid with propensity to afford and buy services. There’s more return to be made building out in an already covered city than there is in rural areas.

    5. CarlT says:

      Openreach FTTP in areas likely to be competitive mostly uses existing cable routes.

      Occasionally poles are replaced, new ones erected and new duct built to bypass full ones or unfixable blockages and breakages but it largely uses existing routes.

      If you check roadworks in a Fibre First city it’s almost entirely duct unblocking on underground plant with some new poles and pole replacement on overground.

      That’s what I meant by upgrade of existing network rather than building an entirely new one.

      It could also be said that Openreach are overbuilding their copper with fibre for sure, though.

  13. Mark says:

    AnotherTim, not all areas are rural, Cotswold town I live in, has several thousand population and over 1200 properties, not massive I know, but people keep saying “rural areas only left” it’s not the case, or is my area unique, where everything is rejected, by planning and objections.

    1. AnotherTim says:

      I’m not suggesting that only rural areas are missing out on superfast broadband, there are pockets of EO lines even in major cities. However, overall rural areas are a long way behind. I know some will point out that FTTP has a larger footprint in some rural areas, but the fact is that superfast availability is far lower in rural areas. You are unlucky to miss out as much of the Cotswolds has now been covered by the Gigaclear contract through Fastershire. It compares favourably with the Forest of Dean where Gigaclear have not yet connected a single property, and 20% of properties still have no superfast broadband available – many of those are below USO.

    2. Joe says:

      Planning aside there’s no good reason 1200 pop won’t get FTTC/Gfast minimum.

    3. CarlT says:

      If people object to the building of infrastructure or roadworks even BT probably can’t help you. Everyone apart from BT needs to dig entirely new trenches for fibre, BT would need to replace poles, dig out blockages in old duct and build new where necessary.

      Sadly no way to do it that is immune to local authority interference.

  14. chris conder says:

    It is all part of the superfarce. And so it rocks on.

    1. CarlT says:

      Thank you as always for your insightful and useful contribution to discussion.

  15. Kinburn says:

    Starlink will end all of this nonsense ….Hopefully 🙂

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