Lords bring plight of rural broadband back into picture
The pligth of rural areas with regards to broadband is very much centered around where the individual lives and what their personal experience is and for those where the BDUK process has not blessed them with a superfast broadband option there is likely to be a feeling that the BDUK process is only targetting urban areas.
One of the hardest aspects is one persons rural village may look like an urban area to the person living in a hamlet of 20 homes, so we use the ONS rural classification to categorise the postcodes and then group these into two categories urban (78.7% of premises) and rural (21.3% of premises) for Great Britain. A third category called Deep Rural which represents just 11.9% of premises and is thus a subset of the rural category is also worked into our figures.
The narrowing of the superfast gap is apparent in our tracking of the superfast broadband roll-outs since 2010 but there is still a disparity and it is the closing of this gap as fast as possible is what people want.
The reason for this latest focus on the rural economy is a report from a House of Lords committee that is calling for a new strategy for the rural economy and the report does look specifically at the rural situation and the forthcoming broadband Universal Service Obligation in its Digital Connectivity section.
One aspect that sounds good but we are waiting to discover if it is more than just sounding good is the £200 million Rural Gigabit Connectivity Programme which is meant to be used to kick start roll-outs of full fibre in remote and hard to reach places. The starting point at this time is rolling out full fibre to primary schools in an attempt to work from the outside in. We are sceptical whether this will deliver what is hoped, i.e. deliver to the school and the same operator will also build out to the surrounding streets and villages, or another operator will use the fibre at the school as the break out point for its own roll-out. Essentially this policy is the reality of the Digital Pump concept from the 2009 Digital Britain paper hiding a reality that money needed to be used to upgrade broadband capacity at lots of primary schools.
The situation for full fibre is actually the inverse so far due to the efforts of rural full fibre solutions such as B4RN, Gigaclear, Truespeed and increasingly the later phases of the BDUK projects.
The April 2019 figures are fresh as of the afternoon of 27th April and thus include the urban Openreach Fibre First roll-outs. Whether the BDUK and alt-net roll-outs will keep rural areas ahead of the urban areas is a big unknown, we suspect there may be a cross over in 2019/2020 where urban areas have a better availability of full fibre, particularly once CityFibre and its Gigafast roll-out starts to deliver in large volumes.
243.When questioned on this subject, James Heath, Director for Digital Infrastructure at DCMS, told us:
'In most of the technology cycles we have had so far, urban areas have tended to benefit before rural areas. That is a fair point. That is one of the key lessons we learned in developing our future telecoms infrastructure strategy, where we look at rolling out of full-fibre broadband, moving urban and rural areas at the same time. As we future-proof the networks, we are trying to avoid the problem we have had in the past of urban moving faster than rural'.
267.David Fursdon, Lord Lieutenant of Devon, also emphasised the frustration felt by local people trying to get access to broadband. He told us that people in rural areas often aren’t aware of what is being done in their area, when they are likely to get connected or what options there are for communities to do something themselves.
268.Kim Mears of Openreach and officials from DCMS confirmed that there is no central point of contact for people wanting to access information about their local area and what options they have for getting connected. James Heath of DCMS suggested that members of the public would have to find out which commercial providers were operating in their area and contact them directly.
269.Ofcom must improve access to information about digital connectivity. This should include regularly updated information about when residents and businesses can expect to be connected to digital infrastructure, connectivity options for communities and details of providers operating in their local area, and regular reporting on the progress of 5G rollout in local areas.
270.While full fibre and 5G represent the forefront of digital technology, the Government has also established a provision to ensure that everyone has access to at least a minimum standard of digital connectivity. The broadband USO is a provision of the Digital Economy Act 2017 and is due to be introduced in 2020. It gives a legal right for eligible consumers and businesses to request a broadband connection of at least 10Mbps and upload speeds of at least 1 Mbps. Once a request has been made, the designated universal service provider has 12 months to deliver that. It is also possible for neighbours to aggregate their demand to get a connection, thereby reducing the cost.223 According to Defra, around 701,000 (7 per cent) of rural premises do not currently have broadband that meets the USO standard for download and upload speeds.Extracts from Digital Economy section of committee report
The situation on the broadband USO (Universal Service Obligation) is a heated one, is the 10 Mbps connection (sync) speed down and 1 Mbps up going to be exceeded by just a few kilo bits or will many people actually enjoy download speeds in the 30 Mbps and uploads of maybe 3 to 4 Mbps. The reality is until those requesting the USO help and they are connected we will not know and a lot of this is because 4G is expected to be a big part of the USO services.
Our chart showing how things have changed over the years and the amount of premises falling within reach of the USO does have a bump for the urban category in April 2018 and this is where we excluded all ADSL2+ from meeting the USO obligation (whether ADSL2+ that can for a small number sync at over 1 Mbps upload will be excluded is probably only going to apparent when people apply and are denied for living too close to an ADSL2+ enabled exchange).
On the information we original started tracking all the broadband statistics as many people expected BT and its BDUK contract obligations to be missed by a large margin, but now the biggest element is tracking what is being delivered in terms of full fibre and whether the many press releases are actually delivering. A big part of the work is also keeping our availability checkers as up to date as possible, this is then are used to feed our postcode search (which covers a wide range of alt-nets) and our package search. The mail bag that we get tends to cover several areas, people who think we are their broadband provider, those confused by the superfast product names but not getting superfast speeds and people hoping we can give some insight into when they may see faster speeds. So
On the call for Ofcom to do more in terms of providing information of Digital Connectivity one thing we are not sure about is whether the committee report has taken into account the Ofcom Boost Your Broadband campaign which only launched in December 2018. The Ofcom boost campaign does have numerous flaws perhaps the largest being the time lag between things changing on the ground and their checker reflecting this and there is a massive disjoint between how its data is presented and what the public will see if if they use any of the sites linked to under the campaign. Of course our own checker has its flaws too but we work hard to ensure where errors are flagged they are corrected within 24 hours and through our work looking for additions there are daily updates as the various roll-outs are tracked. The information in our checkers is available for third party use under a commercial arrangement via an API for driving comparison sites so for example we can tell when Openreach FTTP is available at the same time as VDSL2 and an estimated speed for the VDSL2 service so a comparison site can customise its package recommendations if they want.
Broadband has changed the UK economy massively and the next 13 to 14 years are going to see another potential big change as full fibre is rolled out, the 50% target for 2025 looks achievable if all the operators build what they say they will, the big unknown is exactly who will deliver the second 50% and who will pay for it. We suspect that the reality in 2025 will be similar to the superfast picture of 2012 but replace the word superfast with full fibre, i.e. rural areas with around 20 to 25% full fibre coverage and urban at around 55 to 60%. Those places most likely to be waiting the longest for full fibre will be those villages of 300 to 800 homes.
Moving the goalposts on the broadband USO as hated as it is at this time is likely to delay its implementation and that is probably going to be less popular, what we really need is to bring the USO forward and get the safety net in place with as short a time frame as possible and maybe in 2023 when a better idea of what the commercial full fibre plans will be post 2025 can a decision be taken on shifting the USO to something that mandates full fibre.
The appetite for another big investment of public money to deliver a full fibre USO today would not go down well across the board when so many other areas such as the NHS need real boosts in staff numbers rather than just tech based chat and dreams. There are those that say the money left over from the BDUK process can be used but a good amount of this is already being used for the incremental FTTP roll-outs but with local authorities under financial pressure they are likely to be increasingly keen to take back some of their original money put into the BDUK projects to balance the books and spend on areas.
To end on some data rather than an opinion the scale of the USO challenge can be masked by the percentages we shared earlier, so in urban Great Britain the raw number is 298,147 premises and in the rural part of Great Britain it is 487,203 premises. The big unknown is how many and how quickly people in those premises will invoke the USO once it becomes available.