MPs Say Broadband Policy Is Short Changing Rural Areas

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Parliamentary committee calls for 10Mbps minimum speeds and satellite broadband subsidies to make sure the final five percent of properties aren’t left out

A parliament committee was warned that rural communities risk being isolated unless the government’s rural broadband policy makes sufficient provisions for the final five percent of the UK population not covered by existing projects.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says the focus on upgrading the majority of premises to superfast broadband could leave a minority unable to access vital government services, many of which will soon be delivered entirely or mainly online.

The first two phases of the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) initiative will connect 95 percent of the UK population to speeds of 24Mbps by 2017 – a deadline that BT told the committee might slip until 2018. The remainder will be able to access at least 2Mbps – a minimum speed that the committee says is already outdated.

Rural isolation

windmill suffolk country rural © Douglas Freer shutterstock“People living in the hard-to-reach 5 percent of premises need the same access as the rest to online and digital services,” said committee chair Anne McIntosh MP. “There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none.

“We are concerned that the current broadband rollout targets are based on inaccurate assumptions that universal basic broadband coverage has largely been achieved when the reality is that many rural communities are still struggling with no access, or slow broadband speeds.

“There is a fear that upgrading the majority who already have access to basic broadband is creating an even bigger gap between those with and those completely without broadband access.”

Rural and urban deficit

Previous studies have suggested that rural children reliant on the Internet for their education suffer in comparison to their urban counterparts, while Ofcom has admitted that it is considering increasing the universal service requirement to 10Mbps – a figure that the committee believes is a “suitable” target. Ofcom also supports total superfast broadband coverage.

The government has set aside £10 million for the testing of alternative technologies that could provide superfast broadband to difficult to reach areas, such as LTE and satellite. However the committee says satellite isn’t always commercially and practically realistic and would like to see the introduction of a voucher scheme that subsidises the cost of installation.

The committee has also acknowledged that poor speeds do not just afflict rural communities, but also urban areas which are located far away from an exchange in Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) deployments which use copper for the final hundred or so metres.

BDUK debate

“We recognise that poor broadband access is not exclusively a rural issue,” added McIntosh.”The Government’s ‘Innovation Fund’ is the first step towards providing broadband to the final premises without access, whether they are in rural or urban areas.”

BDUK has proved controversial with all of the money available so far given to BT, with critics accusing the project of overcharging the taxpayer and displaying a lack of transparency. A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has suggested the cost of BDUK will be £92 million less than BT’s estimates.

However it has been suggested that the money saved could be used to expand the reach of the fibre rollout even further.

Last week, BT announced plans to pilot G.Fast technology, which can speed up connections using existing copper wire. The company said if the tests are successful, the majority of the UK could receive ‘ultrafast’ speeds of 500Mbps within a decade.

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