In July 2013, the National Audit Office (NAO) reported that the UK Government’s plan to roll out its “Rural Broadband Programme” was likely to miss its 90% coverage target by nearly 2 years. May 2015 is that target date and the 90% coverage applies to a speed objective of at least 24 megabits per second (Mbps). The remaining geography is planned to be able to connect at 2 Mbps or better. Specific wording of the NAO report’s key facts indicates a revised March 2017 date for completion of the programme.
Other aspects of the project highlighted as not up to speed included the aspect of fair competition as, so far, there has been a monopoly on the business being awarded to provide the infrastructure. To date 26 of the 44 local projects have reached that particular milestone. Additionally the local rural residents’ feedback on the progress is reported as “poor” – although with a government run project, perhaps eliciting feedback and hoping for something positive might be a long shot.
One of the driving factors behind the programme, officially referred to as “The Rural Broadband Programme”, is that of business growth – it is recognised that superfast broadband access is essential for the UK economy to recover from the current recession. The global business world is reaching into the corners of the globe and being run out of small corners of the country, including more and more home run businesses. Comprehensive superfast broadband coverage is considered the catalyst for world class communications and thus world class services.
In the UK, as expected, a large proportion of the rural landscape is centred on the farming industry. Already under pressure from large supermarket chains in terms of competing in the modern world, this sector contributes to approximately 20% of the British economy.
Businesses need to be run from far afield
The aim to create “The best superfast broadband network in Europe” already has a pretty good head start, with the UK having a high 70 plus per cent broadband coverage at the initiation of the programme in December 2010. This figure was ahead of Euro-business heavyweight Germany, the United States and even Japan. The UK does have a wide and competitive selection of internet service organisations fuelling our need -this is the website of UK broadband provider TalkTalk.
Delivery of the programme is the responsibility of a specific unit, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) – which is itself an entity within The Department for Culture, Media & Sport. This organisation essentially administers grant funding to the local body handling the rural area’s infrastructure build, which then receives support in providing the coverage. This assistance includes a contract framework for use by the local authorities which also includes safeguard assurances with the objectives of addressing:
1. Processes for the procurement of potential suppliers – intending to promote healthy competition.
2. Some assertion that the bidding cycle will be reduced risk by means of a call-off procedure.
3. The provision of mechanisms for in-life contracts as this is the phase where ultimately the initial expenditure needs to be returned.
This strategy of assisting funding and providing “support” allows the implementation to be technology-neutral, as the reliance on and re-use of existing infrastructure and differences in geographical challenges means there isn’t a one size fits all solution. It is thus envisaged that a blend of fixed wireless, satellite or cable may be required. It is hoped that a healthy dose of fibre optic cable will be used further into the outlying rural network although the Fibre To the Cabinet (FTTC) and Fibre To The Home (FTTH) solutions will have to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
Despite the previous seemingly impressive figures for the UK’s broadband capabilities, the download speed compared to Europe is far from the gold medal placing due to the legacy copper metal construction.
Nothing comes for free, even if it comes really slowly, and the need to help out the remote but vital areas of the economy is in conflict with the business cases for those providing this infrastructure. The numbers make sense in the more densely populated regions – where the subscriptions more quickly make up the initial outlay – but this is not commercially viable in the isolated towns, villages, hamlets, farmsteads and smaller communities.
For this reason some incentive in terms of finance was required and a government subsidy to stimulate the commercial activity which has until now been absent.
The government has set aside £530 million of public money for this rural broadband programme and this funding was approved by the EU in November 2012. When an application for a grant is accepted, the local body is usually required to match the grant, but with an option to pay more in return for a superior level of coverage. This money is then available for the winning telco to use to complete the work.
At the outset of the programme 44 areas were identified as being in need of assistance, some quite large – Scotland and Wales – and others at county level size. The funding allocation model was not just a measure of area, but considered other factors and as of July 2013 £462 million had been assigned.
Referring to the original milestone target of May 2015, the delay in roll-out is partly because of an extended period of negotiation with the EU, which was required under the State Aid Rules for this nature of government funding, that took 6 months longer than planned. There has been an official revision in timing and definition of the milestone: with “securing delivery by December 2016″ and expecting the actual reach to be 4.6 million premises in total by March 2017. Additionally, a slight shift in the coverage statistics is anticipated, with an increased figure of 92 per cent of premises in areas covered by the Programme having access to superfast broadband, although with four of the 44 local areas now falling short of the target 90%.
The Final 10 Percent
Once the programme is complete to whatever definition finally evolves, it is clear that around 10% of the country will still be in the slow lane. This is already prompting local community groups to come up with imaginative solutions – in the form of sort of hi-tech neighbourhood watch teams.
One such example Lancashire co-operative is B4RN – BB for the Rural North – whose members are taking matters into their own hands with 3.5m funded by share issue. Once operational, the broadband connection subscriptions will eventually cover the costs. This project was featured recently in a BBC Countryfile broadcast.
This ambitious project was never going to be a walk in the park (or the woods, fields or farmland). Even the local wildlife seems opposed to their natural habitat being information superhighwayed – badger setts in the way of broadband rollout. However, those of us living in the connected areas must understand what an advantage this provides whether for business or pleasure – it’s nice to visit the country to get away from it all, but there are occasions when communication is essential.
Related government projects are underway to likewise improve the quality and coverage of mobile phone voice and data services (the Mobile Infrastructure Project) and create super-connected cities.
A super-connected vision of the future
The average speed of UK broadband at home recently hit double figures at 12Mbps and many are in the position to further upgrade their packages to 30Mbps and beyond. Hopefully the rural areas won’t be running hard just to standstill or worse still continue to be left behind.
What’s clear is that the landscape is changing on an almost daily basis and there could be more to add to this superfast broad-brush resume of the superfast broadband situation very soon.