MPs Debate Rural Broadband And 4G Licences


The government says 4G technologies could play a crucial role in extending broadband provision to rural areas

A group of MPs are looking to bring pressure to bear on both Ofcom and the government to expand the provision of 4G technologies to more isolated rural communities, in a debate in the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon.

The debate has been opened by Conservative MP, Rory Stewart, whose Penrith (Cumbia) constituency is right at the heart of the argument about the lack of decent broadband in rural communities.

But the debate has also drawn strong support, after 105 MPs signed a motion calling for action to counter the digital divide.

Essentially what they are after is to pressurise both Ofcom and the government over the provision of 4G licences next year. The concern is not only that rural areas are missing out on decent broadband services, but that mobile voice and data services are also inadequate in those areas.

4G Auction

At it stands with the proposals for the 4G licence auction in 2012, Ofcom anticipates setting a minimum of 95 percent UK coverage for 4G technologies, and that would only apply to one licence holder out of the four mobile operators in the UK.

But the motion is seeking to persuade the government, and hence Ofcom, to expand this to 98 percent coverage.

It should be stressed that Ofcom’s guidelines are not set in stone yet, as the 4G auction proposals are only in the consultation stage at the moment.

The motion of the debate states the following: “That this House recognises that rural businesses and rural communities across the UK are isolated and undermined by slow broadband and the lack of mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage; urges Ofcom to increase the coverage obligation attached to the 800MHz spectrum license to 98 percent; and calls upon the government to fulfil its commitment to build both the best superfast broadband network in Europe and provide everyone in the UK with a minimum of 2Mbps by 2015.”

Full debates like this are relatively rare, as they are usually proposed by the government or the opposition, not backbencher MPs, and indicates the level of concern about the provision of mobile broadband in rural areas.

“I’m absolutely delighted that I have managed to secure this debate – essentially, a full Parliamentary debate – to push for wider broadband and to extend mobile telephone coverage in rural areas,” said Rory Stewart MP. “If I can get that motion passed  next Thursday, it should make a real difference to government policy and to 2 million people around the country.”

Ofcom Preparations

Ofcom is currently preparing for the long-awaited auction of spectrum around 800MHz and 2.6GHz, which is due to take place in the first quarter of 2012.

Ofcom has set strict maximum and minimum limits to the amount of spectrum which can be bought by any one operator, in an attempt to maintain competition in the market and allay fears that the auction could squeeze out smaller players.

This increased spectrum capacity is essential in meeting the UK’s rapid increase in mobile traffic, fuelled by the growth of smartphones and mobile broadband data services. The MPs are hoping that 4G will help in those areas that cannot receive a decent broadband speed via fixed-line.

Ofcom recently released research, stating that 4G mobile technology will deliver more than three times the capacity of existing 3G technologies, using the same amount of spectrum. It will however require greater use of smaller cells such as microcells and femtocells, which will be needed to meet demand in specific areas.

4G technologies include Long Term Evolution (LTE) and later generations of LTE that are still in development, such as LTE Advanced. It also considered emerging and later generations of WiMax.

Ofcom’s recearch found that initial deployments of 4G will deliver a 1.2 times improvement over high-end 3G technologies, and a 3.3 percent improvement compared with more typical 3G devices on the market today.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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