Alternative technologies and suppliers show real promise as a means to deliver broadband to remote rural communities, finds Brian Wilson.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has published its emerging findings from some pilot projects that have run to test different technologies and approaches for getting superfast broadband into the hardest-to-reach rural areas.
The context for this is the Government's Superfast Broadband Programme, which is due to end in 2017, by which time the target is that 95% of UK premises can access a broadband connection offering a download speed of at least 24 Megabits per second (Mbps). This programme has essentially subsidised BT Openreach to extend its fibre network into otherwise uncommercial or less commercial parts of the country.
The big question is what happens after 2017 and what action is proposed to assist the remaining 5% of premises, the bulk of which are in rural areas? Let's recall that these still represent roughly a quarter of all rural premises.
What isn't on the table is a successor to the Superfast Broadband Programme. Instead the Government proposes introducing a broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO), in much the same way there are USOs for a telephone connection, mail delivery and other basic utilities. In principle this is an attractive proposition but, as the Rural Services Network has said, the proposed design of the broadband USO is much less appealing.
In fact the USO would simply be a right to request a broadband connection and where the building cost is particularly high the requesting household or business would be asked to pay any excess over a given limit. Of course, the remaining 5% areas will by definition be among the most expensive.
The other key component to this is finding technologies that actually work in such areas. The standard approach of fibre to the street cabinet and copper wire onwards to the premises is unlikely to be the solution in many cases. Which is where the seven pilot projects come in. Their aim is to test what works, both from a technical standpoint and for customers.
Three of the projects, which were set up in 2014 and 2015, use fixed wireless technology, two use satellite technology and two use a combination of fibre and fixed wireless.
All of these pilots are judged to have provided good quality broadband services and to have done so in remote locations. All seven have demonstrated that they can deliver at superfast speeds and have consistently high satisfaction ratings from their customers.
In south-east England, Call Flow, and a community-owned scheme in the North Pennines, Cybermoor, both tested the value of mixing fibre networks with alternative technologies. In one case this involved fibre all the way to the premises (and not only to the street cabinet). Their mixed technology approach enabled them to achieve good coverage in remote locations and at relatively low cost. Call Flow achieved 96% coverage across an area served by three rural telephone exchanges for a public subsidy of £800 per premises. Cybermoor is achieving 100% coverage in its area for a subsidy of £1,220 per premises.
The DCMS report says that there is increasing confidence among smaller network providers about their capacity to deliver in such locations and it points to Gigaclear, which has recently borrowed 25 million Euros to invest in extending its fibre networks in rural areas.
Nonetheless, a key conclusion is that, "infrastructure providers are likely to continue to need some public subsidy to deliver in these areas". That reminder is one that will no doubt be played back frequently to Government and its telecoms regulator, Ofcom.
The role of local communities is highlighted, since they can help to make conditions more commercially viable. Local champions have proven useful in raising awareness and building demand. Whilst the report finds that communities engaged enthusiastically with these projects, it also cautions that in the most sparsely populated areas there may be no natural community to engage with.
Local authority support is also seen as important, not least when it comes to community engagement, planning permissions, match-funding, local marketing and political backing.
A final report is due later this year which, amongst other things, will consider the longer term sustainability of these pilot projects. Nonetheless, the interim findings indicate the potential of alternative suppliers and technologies. There are apparently more than forty smaller network providers operating in the UK, most of them serving rural areas. Let's hope that the policy framework (USO or otherwise) and some funding is put in place to encourage them.