The House of Commons has published another report that covers broadband issues, but this report is a little different as it comes from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee which has produced a report on rural communities covering broadband, mobile coverage, housing, fuel poverty, transport and the general rural community.
The report is covering the real rural UK, i.e. not the fake rural that is often used when talking about delivering superfast broadband, where the main BDUK project should raise coverage levels from around the current two thirds to 88% in May 2015. The real rural areas make up just 14% of England, and comprise some half a million businesses contributing £200 billion to the economy.
"40. The Universal Service Commitment of 2 Mbps is a big step forward for households and businesses currently with no or slow broadband. This part of the rural broadband programme is crucial and it should not be undermined by the ambition to roll out superfast broadband to those who already enjoy an adequate service. It must be the priority, particularly if there is a risk of funding not stretching as far as originally hoped. However, given the delays to the Programme, the Committee is unclear when those currently without any access may benefit. 2 Mbps must also be the minimum speed that users receive during periods of peak demand, not a headline 'up to' figure that is rarely achievable. Not that we consider 2 Mbps good enough; while it may be sufficient to stream video content for one device, households increasingly have a number of devices that compete for internet connectivity - this needs to be recognised in future plans to move beyond the USC."Extract from EFRA report on rural broadband
The report calls for the Rural Community Broadband Fund to be made more accessible to community projects. In effect rather than make these areas wait until at least 2018 when 98% of the UK if the political statements are to believed is, will have superfast services. Of course the reality is that in some areas simply enabling superfast even if via FTTC (which many are critical of) it may help to pull people into the 2 Mbps and faster zone.
One aspect still woefully neglected in any statement from the Government and people have been asking for this since the first Digital Britain report and that is for the USC to include a minimum upload speed target and one that is suitable for SMEs for who the ability to upload and share documents is becoming ever more critical.
The burden does not completely lie with the politicians and local authorities, rural communities have a part to play and they are encouraged to be less passive and actually go seek out solutions and pester those in charge in the BDUK project in their area.
The recently announced extra funding for superfast broadband between 2015 and 2017 comes in for some attention, and as we pointed out when it was announced this was not new investment, simply an announcement of what the £300m from the BBC will be used for, and it appears that the DCMS will receive this money as a £12.5m payment every month for two years. The Committee was unable to find out what the spare £50m has been held back for, and goes as far to suggest that the funding would be better aimed at the RCBF scheme which currently has just £20m and only releases its funding after a project is able to produce the invoices. While payment on results may be a good mechanism to avoid vapourware projects, it does mean any project needs to find an alternative short term loan or some other form of finance beyond the base funding.
The mobile infrastructure project gets more than a passing mention and while some are parading 4G mobile as a solution for rural areas, when we are in the position that 12.8% of the UK landmass has no 2G signal yet and if you look at 3G which should be able to offer better than dial-up speeds this increases to 24.3% of the landmass or 0.9% of premises. The choice is limited too with 3G only 77.3% of premises have coverage from all the mobile providers. After the original grand announcements of £150m investment in capital spending to virtually eliminate all the not-spots, this has been scaled back to 60,000 out of the 80,000 that exist and the timetable is slipping, the original timetable called for benefits to appear in 2013, but the first towers are not expected until 2015 when seven masts will be erected in Cumbria (Cumbria is set to get another 17 after that). There is also the danger that Arqiva who have the contract may build the masts, but the operators delay actually offering services even longer.
All in all the report can be seen to paint a pessimistic picture, but after the showboating of the Public Accounts Committee this is a much more measured report on the state of broadband in the rural parts of the UK. The question is will it change anything?