The internet is now an essential part of our everyday lives, with connectivity providing opportunities to reduce some of the issues facing rural communities. The demand for broadband services in rural areas often outstrips many urban places. Yet the task of connecting residents and businesses remains much greater in rural areas due to lower population densities and geography which combine to make the commercial case for investment more challenging. With the Government now providing subsidy for broadband infrastructure, are rural communities enjoying the benefits of digital technology or are they being left behind? Jessica Sellick investigates.
BROADBAND has been defined as 'always-on internet access' and is characterised by its bandwidth – the amount of data that can be transferred per second (measured in millions of bits per second, Mbps). Basic broadband services can be delivered using wireless, satellite or over copper telephone wires; although the distance of the household or premise will affect the speed, up to 20 Mbps can be available. This compares to dial-up modems which connected at 56 thousand bits per second (Kbps). Once a broadband service achieves a certain bandwidth – which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) currently sets at 24 Mbps– it is referred to as 'superfast'. In Next Generation Access (NGA) networks, some or all of the copper in the network is being replaced with fibre. BT, for example, is investing £2.5 billion in upgrading the copper network using fibre-optic cable which is predicted to supply increased speeds of up to 80 Mbps to customers by 2014. What do these Mbps, NGA, BT investment and Government approach mean for rural communities? I offer three points.
Firstly, where does broadband fit and what is connectivity like in rural areas? For example: should having a broadband internet 'service' be treated as a basic 'utility' much like electricity, water or the traditional telephone? Should rural residents and businesses expect the same or comparable levels of connectivity as their urban counterparts, or is broadband a luxury item? Ofcom's latest research on broadband performance to residential consumers was published in August 2013. On the one hand, this shows the average broadband speed reached 14.7 Mbits/s in May 2013, a rise in actual average speed of 64% (or 5.7 Mbits/s) since May 2012; with 19% of residential broadband customers receiving superfast connections. On the other hand, the gap between average download speeds in urban and rural areas has widened from 9.5 Mbits/s in May 2011 to 16.5 Mbit/s in May 2013. This is because of the lower availability of superfast broadband services in rural areas when compared to urban areas and because the average line from the home to the nearest telephone exchange is longer – you can check the broadband services available in your area here.
With BT and other commercial providers making superfast broadband available to approximately two-thirds of the population, in 2010 the Government decided to intervene and provide public subsidy for suppliers to invest in the 'final third' predominantly rural areas. The Government has allocated £530 million for a Rural Broadband Programme. The Programme is led by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), a unit with DCMS. BDUK gives grant funding to local authorities or groups of local authorities to procure 'basic broadband' (2 Mbps) to everyone and 'superfast broadband' (24+ Mbps) to at least 90% of their population. The role of local authorities, therefore, is not to deliver broadband schemes per se but to map need and procure delivery solutions. Central Government is working with 44 local authorities who are required to provide match funding to the central grant they receive. However, a recent report on the Rural Broadband Programme prepared by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee critiqued the design of the programme for failing to deliver competition for contracts and strengthening the role of BT in the marketplace. The Committee found that of the 26 local authorities that had let contracts to deliver rural broadband, all had been awarded to BT. Moreover, the report revealed that DCMS own forecasts show the programme overall will not complete until March 2017, nearly two years later than planned.
Amid the discussion around speed, the think tank Policy Exchange has called for an end to the broadband arms race. Their report, 'The superfast and the furious', found the case for spending taxpayers' money to subsidise very fast connectivity to be weak. In a poll of 2,000 people and 500 businesses by Ipsos MORI, one-third of people said price and reliability mattered as much as speed and two-thirds of respondents thought good basic broadband coverage for the whole country was more important than chasing very fast speeds in some areas at the expense of others. How do we know where and what demand is? Some local authorities, for example, have websites and off line methods where residents and businesses can register demand. And what is the relationship between demand and sustainability? For example, the number of subscribers may not increase but you still need to grow the digital infrastructure to meet community demands and expectations.
It is worth noting that mobile phone coverage is as much of an issue as broadband in many rural areas. The Government is looking to address this through its 'Mobile Infrastructure Project' (MIP), a £160 million project also led by the DCMS and being implemented by Arqiva to improve existing mobile phone coverage and build additional masts in uncovered areas. In October 2013, DCMS organised a meeting with mobile operators and broadband providers to consider how they can work together to improve digital services.
Secondly, as well as the delivery infrastructure put together by the Government and local authorities, how can residents and businesses deliver broadband for their area? There are a plethora of examples of where communities have decided to 'do it yourself'. Cybermoor is a community owned co-operative operating since 2001 that provides a Wi-Fi broadband network for Alston Moor and the surrounding areas. The project started when Alston Moor was chosen as one of 7 areas as a pilot for the UK Government's Wired up Communities initiative – a £10 million initiative to connect homes in disadvantaged communities to the internet. Today, the superfast wireless broadband network has the highest penetration of broadband in any rural area in England. Other examples include Broadband 4 Rural North (B4RN) - a community fibre network offering fibre to every home in the Lancashire uplands, providing 1000 megabit (1 gigabit) future proof connection for £30 a month; and Fibre GarDen, a community broadband initiative formed by residents in Garsdale and Dentdale supported by both parish councils and now taking up Government funding available from BDUK to bring superfast broadband to both dales. Each project has faced many unexpected challenges along the way – from nesting lapwings to needing cash – and is now supporting other community organisations to tackle such pitfalls.
That is not to say that public and community ownership approaches are the only way to go, an important starting point is to find out what the community needs and the level of involvement it wants to have. However, a joint paper by the Plunkett Foundation and the Carnegie UK Trust suggests that a significant number of rural households, rural businesses and rural communities will not have access to good quality high speed broadband unless they take action themselves. Indeed INCA suggests there is a hierarchy of technologies and that all possibilities to have a network with 'better' technology should be exhausted before settling for a lesser one: with fibre at the top of the hierarchy because it can provide the highest speeds, has the greatest flexibility and can be upgraded in the future and satellite at the bottom where potential to upgrade becomes increasingly restrictive. How, then, can we encourage other rural communities to solve the connectivity conundrum that they are facing? Where and how can communities be supported to obtain access to finance, technical skills and infrastructure?
Thirdly, if by March 2017 rural places are wired and perhaps even fibred up, with residents and businesses provided with any digital skills that they might need, what are the potentialities of this digital revolution? Certainly it opens up alternative ways of delivering services. Cybermoor, for example, has been working with Cumbria NHS to lower the cost of providing services and improve patient care using telehealth and telemedicine. It also makes the 'flipped classroom' a possibility, thus giving schoolchildren video lectures to watch in their own time at home to then go to school for discussions and interaction with teachers and between pupils.
Finally, it is worth noting that broadband is not a catch-all solution to the issues facing rural communities – it needs to be joined up. Echoing the views of some RSN members once again here, it is important that we do not impose 'online solutions' to 'offline issues'. While policy and decision makers have been providing a plethora of initiatives and funding pots since 2010, to what extent these will reduce the digital divide between town (leaders) and country (laggers) is open to debate. What will connectivity be like in 2017?