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Cross-Party MPs Launch Another UK Rural Broadband Inquiry

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019 (11:36 am) - Score 1,328

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) has launched a “short” inquiry that aims to examine the remaining problems with gaining access to superfast broadband ISP connectivity, mobile signals and accessing digital-only services in remote rural parts of the United Kingdom.

The terms of reference for the new cross-party inquiry read like a mirror for the many similar reports and studies that have been done over the past few years, including most recently by the Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy (here), as well as the Rural Services Network (here) and Rural England CIC (here).

In fairness today’s situation has improved quite a bit since EFRA’s last report in 2015. Today fixed “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) coverage reaches around 96% of UK premises (up from 83% in 2015 and potentially rising to 97-98% by the end of 2020), while outdoor geographic coverage of 4G based mobile services has risen to 66% of the UK (up from 43% last year) from all four mobile operators or 91% from one operator (EE).

Nevertheless all of the on-going work is still expected, once completed, to leave a coverage gap in some areas (c.2% for fixed superfast broadband and c.5-10% for 4G mobile in a few years time) and the majority of that will impact rural communities.

Unfortunately closing that gap will be disproportionately expensive and it’s too early to know how close the Government will actually get to 100% coverage of “full fibre” networks by 2033, but we suspect a fair gap will remain. On the flip side it’s likely that new services, such as those due to be delivered via Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites (example), could provide a much more effective solution than today’s GSO based satellite ISPs.

Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA Committee, said:

“The EFRA Committee has decided to revisit this subject because – five years after our initial inquiry – digital connectivity still remains a core issue for many rural communities.

The Government has identified the challenges for improving digital connectivity in rural areas and recently made numerous policy and funding announcements.

We want to know if these plans for improving connectivity are adequate for rural areas and what is being done in the short term to improve delivery of broadband and improved mobile phone coverage to those living there.

The Committee will also test how the Government plans to ensure access to the growing number of online public services at no extra cost to rural consumers.

As previous select committee inquiries have shown, delivery of broadband in rural areas in the past has been poor. We cannot allow this problem to continue. The Government and service providers need to ensure that equal access to a high-quality, cost-effective service is accessible to all.”

The committee is now taking written evidence until 24th June 2019 and we’ll report back once the results are published, but if you’re already familiar with this issue then we wouldn’t expect too many surprises from their findings. By now this ground really should be quite well understood.

Inquiry Terms of Reference

  1. What are the barriers to delivering superfast broadband and improved mobile phone coverage in rural areas at an affordable cost to consumers?
  2. Is enough being done to address the disparity in coverage and digital service provision between rural and urban areas? What is the impact of the urban-rural digital divide on rural communities?
  3. Is the current Universal Service Obligation (USO) adequate for the needs of rural communities and businesses and will it be effectively delivered? Given technological developments, including provision of 5G, will the USO provide the necessary level of connectivity for rural areas in the next decade?
  4. Are the Government’s recent policy and funding announcements for improving digital connectivity adequate for rural areas, and how robust are the plans for delivery?
  5. How well do digital public services work in rural areas where there are poor internet connections? What support or alternatives are available for those in rural areas with poor or no connection to use digital public services and how effective is it?

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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.
Leave a Comment
9 Responses
  1. NGA for all says:

    It is a good opportunity to coral and reconcile all the monies owed and keep open the opportunity to secure the upside possible for a good deal more full fibre in rural UK, before folk are tempted to pass the buck to the B-USO.

  2. chris conder says:

    A lot of people on ‘superfast broadband’ are statistically in the 96% but they don’t get more than 10Mbps. A lot of them don’t even have broadband, they are homes passed and if all of them chose to take the service we’d see even more FTTC going in the pavements. How can you have an enquiry when the data is suspect? Supplied by an incumbent with a legacy network to protect. How can politicians do anything to help unless they have real facts? If they are given the facts (and they have been given them many times) they have to check them with BT who then convince them the job is being done and superfast fibre broadband is available – which we know comes down phone lines so it isn’t fibre at all, and so the superfarce rocks on.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      I think on the 96% figure (admittedly that’s a best estimate and so not perfect) you’re probably confusing “superfast” with general network footprint. If we were to include all of the sub-24Mbps areas in Openreach’s FTTC/VDSL2 footprint then the UK would actually be at over 98% according to Thinkbroadband at least.

      Of course there are some other caveats here, such as the small percentage of premises in a temporary limbo status due to the local FTTC cabinet being full to capacity. Tends to have a 2-4% point reduction impact on coverage, depending upon how you balance the figures. Likewise I’m obviously not including those who could get a faster connection if they wanted, but haven’t yet.

    2. TheFacts says:

      @CC – do you have any evidence of the numbers being incorrect? Or is it an rural myth?

      Adding FTTC ports and cabinets is not a problem, many have been expanded.

    3. Fastman says:

      no one in any industry builds for 100% capacity in anything

      just more disinformation as ever

  3. Gary says:

    Here you go,

    1 Cost vs return.
    2 No. Not much barring exclusion from what is becoming the norm in entertainment.
    3.For all rural No, Effectively delivered unlikely, For a decade, No.
    4. Not really adequate, what plans? Never mind are they robust enough.
    5. Ok for some, slow and frustrating for others, unworkable for some.

  4. Nigel King says:

    Mark, It is very important that you keep pushing these points, however each time you miss the contribution that is being made by the fixed wireless community to deliver superfast broadband to rural areas. What can we do at UKWISPA to make sure that you know what is being done.

    UKWISPA is essentially dedicated to rural broadband delivery and delivers to about 200,000 homes, while covering nearly 10 times that number, ensuring that superfast broadband is available to a significant number of the 5% if they are prepared to ask for service. Typically this service is no more expensive than other superfast delivery mechanisms.

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      I believe the superfast figures actually include some wireless providers (it may have been more accurate if I simply said “fixed” rather than “fixed line”).

      The problem with reflecting wireless is the difficulty of knowing actual coverage (variable due to complex environments) and the fact that most of the FWA ISPs I come across don’t offer any coverage maps or aren’t very open about where they reach on their website. We sort of end up having to guess their coverage.

      On top of that the main sources of information, whether official or independent, also don’t provide much of any overview of FWA coverage alongside their figures. I can’t easily reflect something without a solid base of official information to go off.

  5. Nigel King says:

    I understand your point. Unfortunately WISPs seem to be reticent to provide information on coverage and delivery and then complain when you do not give the size of the industry. We will be working further in UKWISPA to correct that perception.

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