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Do rural residents in the UK really get a rough deal on telecoms provision?

Broadband Yorkshire

Broadband and mobile not-spot in Anne McIntosh's own constituency © G Daniels

The UK government’s Commons Select Committee for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has published a report on the provision of rural broadband and digital services, following its inquiry into the deployment of high-speed broadband access to rural areas.

Committee chairperson Anne McIntosh MP expressed the concern that the government’s focus on improving broadband speeds in urban areas comes at the expense of those living and working in rural areas. The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) initiative wants superfast broadband (defined as download speeds in excess of 24Mbit/s) to be available to 95 per cent of the population by 2017, with a minimum 2Mbit/s for the remaining 5 per cent. This is being largely enacted by BT, as the dominant provider, through its FTTC work.

“There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the 5 per cent of premises who have none,” the report warns. “There is a risk of poor rural broadband availability causing harm to farm businesses and the rural economy. It is essential that those who are 'hardest-to-reach' are given priority.”

It adds that: “FTTC allows those within a short distance of a local cabinet to experience the benefit of an upgrade to superfast broadband but can leave those already a long distance from the cabinet, and therefore experiencing slower broadband, with limited or no material change in service.”

As alternatives, the report suggests looking at satellite provision and Fibre to the Remote Node (FTTrN, which is a similar concept to FTTdP architectures), and the possible use of vouchers to subsidise the cost. It also wants the government to publish the results of the £10m Innovation Fund pilots, which have been designed to test technology and business models for affordable broadband provision to the last 5 per cent of the population.

As for the 2Mbit/s “catch-all” target, the report says this “is already an outdated figure, and 10Mbit/s is increasingly recommended for standard provision.” Many would whole-heartedly agree.

The bottom line is that the committee is calling for a rebalancing of the funding between urban and rural areas: “Rural areas are lagging behind. Those in poorly connected areas are sometimes asked to pay twice: once through their taxes for the Government-funded BDUK programme and potentially again from their own pockets if the BDUK programme does not reach them.”

The committee was also concerned to hear BT tell its inquiry that the present target of 95 per cent of premises receiving superfast broadband by 2017 may slip to 2018.

“The Committee is right to conclude that a minimum speed of 2Mbit/s is now too slow a speed for modern requirements,” commented Henry Robinson, president of the Country Land Association, “but it is a shame the report stopped short of calling for a Universal Service Obligation. Access to fast, reliable broadband and mobile phone coverage is vital for the success of rural business and social inclusion in the countryside. It is unacceptable that 10-15 per cent of the population is still unable to get broadband. Every home or business that is not connected to the internet is suffering a major disadvantage.”

A report last month from DEFRA concluded that faster broadband and better transport links could increase economic output in rural areas by £35bn by 2025, with a 6 per cent increase in rural employment.

“We know that just 16 per cent of rural small businesses currently have access to superfast broadband,” said John Allan, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses. “Plans for the further rollout of superfast broadband lack ambition and urgency. We want to see much more done to improve rural broadband networks, specifically more done to connect businesses as well as residential customers.”

Mobile not-spots

This comes on the day that regulator Ofcom announced that it has varied the licences of the UK’s four mobile network operators to improve mobile coverage across the country, following an agreement reached between the Government and the various operators in late December.

The licence variations commit the four operators (EE, O2, Vodafone and Three) to provide voice coverage across “90 per cent of the UK’s landmass” by the end of 2017.

The agreement reached last December was something of a climb down for the government, who really wanted to impose national roaming or network sharing to fix the problem of so-called “partial not spots”, where people are unable to access mobile coverage from their contracted service provider (most commonly in rural areas). The operators balked at this idea, and instead a compromise was reached: they would agree to invest in more infrastructure.

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid declared it “a landmark deal”, although it was most certainly anything but landmark. Between them, the four operators pledged to invest a further £5bn in infrastructure by 2017, and in return would each guarantee voice and text coverage across 90 per cent of the UK, which they claim would halve the areas currently affected by these partial not-spots. Data coverage will also increase from the planned 69 per cent to 85 per cent of the country.

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