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Three UK Seek Policy Reform to Connect Rural Areas via 5G WiFi

Monday, July 26th, 2021 (12:48 pm) - Score 2,664

Mobile operator Three UK, supported by research from CCS Insight, has today called on the Government not to overlook the benefits of “5G WiFi” in their plan to rollout gigabit-capable broadband across the country. Apparently, 5G based Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) could do it “faster and for half the cost of fixed lines.”

At present around 42% of homes and businesses across the UK can already access a gigabit-capable (1Gbps or 1000Mbps+) broadband ISP network, which is likely to reach over half of premises by the end of 2021 (c.60%) – thanks mostly to commercial FTTP deployments and DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades of fixed line networks in urban areas.

The Government’s £5bn Project Gigabit programme aims to push this further and is focused upon expanding coverage across the final 20% of predominantly rural premises. The project aims to ensure that such speeds reach at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025 and aspires to get “as close to 100% as possible,” albeit depending upon how the industry responds (i.e. so far only £1.2bn has been released, but more will follow).

Crucially, Project Gigabit is taking a somewhat technologically neutral approach, which has already accepted that FWA networks could have a role to play. Indeed, Three UK believes that “5G Wi-Fi” could be an alternative, but in order to achieve that they’re demanding favourable changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and Permitted Development (PD) rights regime.

Currently it hinders, rather than enables, a quicker rollout of 5G due to a lack of clarity surrounding our ability to exercise our rights under the Code. This means that often, Operators get embroiled in long and costly legal battles with site providers to try to exercise those rights, including our ability to renegotiate a new agreement under new Code rates,” said a spokesperson for Three UK.

Specifically, Three UK and CCS Insight suggest that a 60% reduction in site rentals over 10 years through ECC reform would fund the expansion of the Three 5G network by 20%, enabling them to reach even more people with 5G.

David Hennessy, CTO of Three UK and Ireland, said:

“Gigabit speed internet is critical for the UK’s long-term prosperity. However, the government is too focused on investing in one type of technology – fixed line.

Fixed line, or fibre, is significantly more difficult to roll out than FWA, which only needs a mobile signal to operate. It’s time for a greater consideration of a wider pool of technology, particularly FWA, to help those in rural areas have access to faster internet and ultimately help reduce the digital divide.”

The Government are already consulting on changes to the ECC and PD rights, which is something that we covered last week as part of another report (here). But sadly, disputes over rental payments between landowners and operators continue to be a highly sensitive and complex area of debate.

Indeed, some land and property owners are already declining to accept the significantly reduced annual rents that flowed from the last ECC review in 2017 (here). The Government will have to tread very carefully here, balancing the need for better broadband with some complex concerns, which isn’t easy. Getting it wrong risks causing more disputes and creating political problems at the ballot box, at least in some areas.

One other catch above is that mobile operators, like Three UK, tend to use regular mobile distribution methods in rural areas. The focus for mobile operators in such areas will typically lean toward achieving wide coverage for the least possible infrastructure / cost to mitigate the impact of a sparse population (i.e. masts that cover a wide area), which usually involves a greater reliance on lower frequency bands (700MHz, 800MHz and 900MHz etc.).

Lower frequency bands are good because they travel further and can more easily penetrate through walls, but what they’re not so good at is consistently delivering gigabit broadband speeds to individual users – there’s less spectrum frequency available to carry such data, even if you aggregate several of those bands. If the solution here is to build more cell sites and use higher frequencies, then rural 5G builds suddenly become much more expensive – even if rents were free.

Lest we forget the other catch-22 in all of this, which is that you need to feed those mobile sites with good fibre optic backhaul capacity in order for those gigabit speeds to even be achievable via 5G in the first place. But most rural areas aren’t exactly known for having lots of fibre. Suffice to say that the new report may not be presenting the full context, which is perhaps because it reflects Three UK’s vested, albeit understandable, interests.

As a side note, describing FWA broadband solutions as “5G WiFi” may cause some confusion, but we suspect Three UK reasoned that 5G WiFi is more familiar terminology to consumers and politicians than 5G FWA.

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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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14 Responses
  1. Jonny says:

    If fixed wireless is half the cost of putting fibre to the end user then really the better value option would be to spend the money and do fibre. That cost saving doesn’t seem high enough to delay full-fibre even further.

    1. Sam P says:

      If the end user can get over 1000mbps with the 5G option, why even bother with the FTTP?

    2. Buggerlugz says:

      Because that’ll never happen with 5g in the UK Sam.

    3. Connor says:

      I have personally seen 5G speed tests over 1 gig. It’s more of an exception than the rule right now but 100% possible real world.

  2. Mark says:

    @Sam P I would think the vast majority of Rural are anti mast and 5G, so Fttp is probably the only choice.

    1. Sam says:

      It’s so strange seeing that its just repurposed analogue TV signal. Quite happy to sit in their homes with a wireless router.. its all very far fetched if you ask me. 5G is the future and game changer to rural internet where as FTTP will take years. Im in the middle of the south downs I wont see FTTP for atleast another 5/6 years if i am lucky!

    2. Buggerlugz says:

      If it was Stand-alone 5G it would be a game changer. Current 5G is just delivering what 4G “should” and “could” if it was ever implemented correctly with enough back-haul and fibre connections to mast-sites (not microwave dishes bouncing off 2 or 3 masts before reaching one with fibre.)

      What Three want is it to cost them less to use the mast sites they just sold off.

  3. Chris Reynolds says:

    I don’t know why people panic over 5G and other mobile signals. People living in Sutton Coldfield, Crystal Palace etc have had a million watt transmitter on their doorstep running full power 24/7 for decades and they’re still alive!

    1. Mark says:

      The other thing to remember, rural usually means protected, AONB. Conservation areas etc besides hostility to masts in general, the area I live in (Cotswolds) anti mast have stopped all planning applications for decades, several thousand population too. Surely my area isn’t unique?

    2. Gary says:

      Mark, that’s not what Rural means in Scotland by a long way. While 5g might be a reasonable and cheaper way to cover ‘rural’ towns and villages, it wont really help cover rural any better than FTTC did, Islands of connectivity in a sea of neglect.

  4. David Morgan says:

    I moved to three for 4g broadband in January and got 30-40 mb download compared with bt at 3mb. BT quoted me £8000 to install fttp!
    My three download has now dropped to between 0 and 10mb and it would appear that my nearest mast has stopped supplying a 4g signal so i can now only get 3g threes response was you can cancel the contract how are rural areassuppesed to get a decent internet? Ps fttp is available 300 metres from my house but needs to go underground as no pole’s,it’s just a joke

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Speak to your neighbours and see if enough of you could get BT more interested in installing it.

    2. A says:

      Agreeing with Buggerlugz, the Ofcom 10mbps stuff says BT will cover up to £3400, getting 2 (preferably 3 though) neighbours on board should cover the cost.

    3. Clive says:

      I keep loosing 4G connection when the local mast experiences a power failure.

      Get in touch with Three high level tech support and ask them to refresh the connection. After a reboot, this always fixes my issues.

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