Superfast Broadband for London – but what about the rest of the UK?

Bridging the urban/rural divide in the UK
Is Satellite the Answer to Reaching 100% Coverage?

While EE are planning their mighty 300Mb/s upgrade to existing LTE coverage in London this summer (using LTE-Advanced specification) there are still many parts of the UK still struggling with shaky mobile broadband connectivity. If you’re in London you may find this hard to believe but having grown up in Devon trust me, in some parts of the country even accessing 2G signal can be a challenge.

So I imagine Vodafone’s announcement of the Rural Open Sure Signal programme will be making a lot of people happy as they announce plans to boost signal in 100 rural communities with 3G connectivity. But more generally speaking a whopping third of rural residents in the UK still say their broadband isn’t fast enough for web browsing.

Just think about that. They’re not saying it’s too slow to download movies in 4K or stream live TV, they’re saying it’s too slow for web browsing! I don’t know about you but I find this pretty shocking for the UK, who say there are a EU leader in superfast broadband. While I was researching around rural broadband solutions for the Broadband World Forum I have to say I was thinking about remote places in Africa, America or Australia – emerging nations, mass desert regions or wilderness. Not the UK.

When I spoke to Malcolm Corbett, CEO of the Independent Networks Co-operative Association he told me that – “Poor broadband remains a big issue for many rural areas of the UK – though there are also notspots and slowspots in our cities too. BT’s government funded FTTC programme is covering significant areas but it still leaves around 10% of the population without superfast services.”

To combat this the UK Government has set a goal that by 2015 all UK premises must experience at least 2Mbps download speeds and that 90% of premises can access “superfast” downloads of at least 20Mbps.

In order to achieve this, last month they announced the successful bidders for the £10 million innovation fund. 8 rural broadband pilot projects in the UK were awarded a share of this fund to explore ways to take superfast broadband to the most remote and hardest to reach places in the UK.

Let’s take a look at them…

Hull business Quickline is the largest technology project of the eight – they received the highest grant (£2,054,000) to test a range of line of sight, near line of sight and non-line of sight technologies using wireless Internet technology.

Airwave (£1,564,600) in North Yorkshire are using their part of the fund to deploy four next generation wireless systems, using LTE small cells. AB Internet (£847,650) will be proving welsh customers with up to 50Mbps internet through their hybrid fixed line/fixed wireless superfast network.

Avanti (£885,640) and Satellite Internet (£175,125) are both piloting satellite broadband solutions for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Devon and Somerset. Cybermoor (£449,997) in Northumberland is pulling investment from the local community in order to deliver “The 1st UK fibre optic community”

MLL (£957,900) of Kent is planning to aggregate small wireless networks. And finally Call Flow (£1,194,145) in Hampshire has proposed a mix of fibre, fixed-wireless, and sub-loop unbundling into one fibre network.

These alternatives to BT’s approach all seem like worthwhile projects but the investment is still a drop in the ocean and it’s unclear whether any of them will secure more funding in the future. What’s interesting to see is that none of the money was awarded to large service providers but small innovative projects instead. Is this a good thing?

Corbett states:

These projects make up a vibrant picture leading to a high level of innovation in technology, project development, cost reduction and financing mechanisms – resulting in a much bigger bang for the public sector buck than simply grant funding the incumbent operator.”

I agree that this seems the best way to promote innovation and will hopefully encourage more ISPs to think outside the box when considering rural broadband solutions. But I feel like there’s a lot of catching up to do. As London is speeding ahead with fibre upgrades and 4.5G mobile broadband, it seems almost unbelievable that average speeds across Devon and Somerset are as little as 8Mbps and 14% of premises receive less than 2Mbps.

Personally I think we may have a long wait ahead of us before areas like Devon catch up with the rest of the UK.

At the Broadband World Forum, I’m sure our other panellists from BT, JT Group and Google will have their own opinions on the best way to reach rural communities, as they battle it out alongside Malcolm in the discussion “Is Satellite the Answer to Reaching 100% Coverage?”

Why not send us your thoughts and questions in advance to put forward to our panellists?

The Think Tank Debate “Is Satellite the Answer to Reaching 100% Coverage?” is at 12:30 on Thursday 23rd October in the Access Evolution track.

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