Superfast Broadband roll-out: Reaching the final 5% ‘hardest to reach properties’

Last August, I blogged highlighting that the Government’s superfast broadband programme had extended fibre broadband to 2 million premises. This August, the Government has trumpeted the fact that it has now extended fibre to a further million premises, taking the total to 3 million since 2010.

MPs will debate this and other issues related to superfast broadband on 12 October. One of the key concerns likely to be raised, and now the main focus for the Government, is how, where and when the final 5% of hardest to reach areas will get access to superfast broadband.

Where are the final 5% hardest to reach areas?

As part of its commercial deployment, BT Openreach has extended fibre broadband to around two thirds of all premises in the UK. In addition, working alongside the Government, BT is now in the process of connecting the final third – properties in either hard-to-reach or commercially unviable areas. And while the Government is still on-target to extend a basic broadband service (2Mbps) to all by 2016, and superfast broadband to 95% of all UK premises by 2017, that still leaves a further 5% (nearly 1.5 million premises) with no end-date in sight for when they will begin to receive the benefits of superfast broadband.

The nearly 1.5 million UK properties in this “final 5%” are geographically dispersed across the UK. They are also located in a mix of locations with differing topographies, population densities and distances to existing basic and superfast broadband networks. For instance, DCMS have estimated that:

  • Approximately 20% of the unserved areas are likely to be in areas with greater than 2,000 premises per km2;
  • Approximately 20% of the unserved areas are likely to be in areas with population density between 500 and 2,000 premises per km2; and
  • Approximately 60% of the unserved areas are likely to be in areas with population density below 500 premises per km2.

Each of the different locations thus pose a distinct set of social and technological challenges.

£10m innovation fund

The ambition for Phase 3 of the Government’s superfast broadband programme is to extend superfast broadband coverage to the “final 5%” of UK premises. As part of this programme, in March 2014, the Government announced that it was opening up to bids a £10m innovation fund “to test innovative ways to help take broadband to Britain’s most remote communities.”

Suppliers were invited to submit bids in three different categories:

  • Technology – seeing whether a technology that works can be used in remote areas;
  • Operating models – trying novel operating models such as joining smaller networks together into a common larger network; and
  • Financial – testing innovative public / private funding models that could bring in new investment.

Three months later, in June 2014, the Government announced that it had shortlisted the 8 successful bids to progress to the feasibility stage, ahead of deployment later in the year. The shortlisted schemes included proposals for: satellite broadband; next-gen wireless; a BDUK funded voucher scheme; and a community finance model.

Feasibility studies assessed the potential for commercial and technical viability as well as expected scalability of the 8 shortlisted projects. The summary of findings was published in February 2015. This report explained that seven of the eight projects shortlisted were proceeding into deployment, while one of the projects would not progress due to “unforeseen implementation complexity and commercial risks.” The pilots will now run until March 2016 with further evidence and findings due to be published during 2015 and 2016.

Raising the Universal Service Obligation (USO)

BT has been designated as the provider of universal service in the UK, excluding the Hull area. This requires BT to provide a Universal Service Obligation (USO) which includes provision of a ‘functional internet access’, defined as connection speeds of at least 28.8kbit/s. In 2005, Ofcom reviewed the USO whereupon it decided that the benchmark minimum speed should remain at 28.8 kbit/s for the time being.

There have, however, been recent suggestions to raise the universal service obligation for internet access. The Coalition Government, for instance, published its Digital Communications Strategy on 18 Mach 2015, in which it stated that the Government it would “look to raise the Universal Service Obligation (USO) […] from dial up speeds to 5Mbps broadband.” As stated above, the Government has also already committed to provide a basic broadband service (2Mbit/s) to all by 2016.

In addition, BT announced a package of measures to improve broadband on 22 September 2015, including an aim for a new universal minimum broadband speed of 5-10Mbit/s.

The UK Government has defined superfast broadband as being connections able to deliver Internet download speeds of greater than 24Mbit/s, this rises to 30Mbit/s for Europe’s universal 2020 Digital Agenda target. Raising the universal service obligation to 5, or even 10Mbit/s, would not bring the full benefits of superfast broadband. But do we need these faster and faster speeds?

At present the need for speeds above and beyond 24 and 30Mbit/s are limited. But with more and more devices expected be connected as part of the Internet of Things (IoT), it seems inevitable that the infrastructure for faster speeds will eventually be required.

Alternative technologies: Satellite broadband—a panacea for remote, rural superfast services?

The Government is moving ahead with plans—mooted in the pre-election budget—to provide satellite broadband connection vouchers to people who still cannot access basic broadband speeds of 2Mbit/s. The scheme operates is similar way to the ongoing Connection Voucher scheme for SMEs in urban areas: an eligible person can apply for a voucher that meets the up-front cost of a satellite broadband dish and modem installation, which is often prohibitively expensive.

The satellite broadband vouchers scheme is being piloted in Suffolk and West Yorkshire, with plans for wider national implementation later in the year.

However, satellite broadband has been criticised for various reasons, including:

  • not offering comparable service and speeds to fibre broadband;
  • issues with latency: as the satellite signal has travel to and from the satellite it makes certain functions difficult, such as real-time online gaming; and
  • unexpected downtime during periods of bad weather.

Satellite systems that provide superfast broadband are technically feasible, but it seems likely that the technology will be overtaken in the near future. Speaking to Computerweekly.com, Andrew Ferguson, editor of comparison site thinkbroadband.com, described satellite broadband as a tantalising stop-gap with limitations: “Satellite broadband, while able to provide the speeds it suggests, comes with various usage limits, meaning if you want to enjoy gorging on streamed TV boxsets you will need the most expensive packages at over £60 per month.”

Broadband could also be provided by 4G or wide-area Wi-Fi networks, but again there are limitations for these systems including speeds, restricted availability of fast links, and the cost and difficulty of installing wireless networks in hilly areas.

Who pays?

BDUK is already spending £790 million on its superfast broadband programme, which aims to improve superfast broadband provision to premises across the UK. But it is not yet clear how the Government plans to fund its ambition to reach the final 5% of premises, and ensure all UK premises have superfast broadband access. The £10 million innovation fund should help to identify suitable technologies and operating models, but currently the financing is uncertain.

In July this year, there were reports that the Government was weighing up whether to shift the cost of providing the final 5% of coverage off the taxpayer and on to industry. This could then lead to bigger bills for customers.

Picture Credit: Fiber Optic, by Matthew Wilson, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)