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Rolling Out Rural Broadband: Lessons From Across The Pond

Patrick LincolnIn 2012, Britons generated more money online than any other G20 nation, but broadband speeds are not keeping up with this surge in online industriousness; the problem is particularly apparent in rural and hard-to-reach areas. Roadblocks to rolling out broadband range from the geography and topography of the land down to the age of our existing communications infrastructure. Laying a new network of fiber to replace existing infrastructure, or even running cables where none previously existed, is no small task.

Sound familiar, U.S. readers?

As with so many infrastructure problems, it comes down to money. For businesses and homes to take advantage of super-fast broadband connections, a property is typically connected via FTTC (fiber to the cabinet) or a dedicated leased line. The economics of either connection type vary greatly, in ways that disadvantage rural areas. With FTTC connections, the less populated an area, the less economical it is to lay a connection on a per-head basis. You also have to factor in contention ratios, which are an indication of the quality of service you can expect. With FTTC, these can vary depending on the provider and other factors.

With leased lines you are guaranteed a 1:1 ratio, which ultimately means a 100 percent dedicated quality of service — this, however, comes at a price, as you need to lay more cabling to reach the property rather than just the cabinet.

UK’s Rural Broadband Rollout

To help people in rural areas of the U.K. struggling to get speeds of up to 2 Mbps, and some simply unable to get broadband at all, the government set up Broadband Delivery UK in 2011 with the aim of bringing super-fast broadband (defined as 24 Mbps or more) to 95 percent of the country by 2017. Originally devoting £1.2 billion ($1.86 billion) into the project, the government invested another £250 million ($387 million) to local councils and a further £20 million to make sure that the most isolated communities can achieve just basic speeds of over 2 Mbps.

Rural areas have so far been frustrated with the progress made. A report in 2013 from the UK’s National Audit Office found the rollout program two years behind schedule, and the scheme has come under some criticism from politicians and pressure groups. The NAO report also found competition to be weak, with almost all tenders being awarded to BT, giving the company a huge presence in broadband rollout in the U.K.

In February, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee called for the extension of the government’s Superfast broadband scheme, which allows businesses to claim up to £3000 to improve Internet speeds, to be extended from cities to areas with no fixed broadband. The committee also questioned whether minimum speeds were high enough.

Many question whether the technology being used to deliver super-fast broadband to rural properties will ever achieve the stated 95 percent target, citing the fact that FTTC solutions suffer from a sharp drop-off in broadband speed through copper wires, with homes over 1.5 km away seeing little or no improvement at all. The hope is that schemes like the Superfast program will encourage businesses and providers to invest in alternative solutions to the problem. As long as the speeds available equate to 20 Mbps, the government is open to new ideas that deliver better results than FTTC.

As in the United States, the U.K. countryside is a diverse place that is home to a variety of businesses, communities and needs. Expecting FTTC to be a panacea is folly; what is really needed is a mixed approach, and I am not alone in that opinion. We need to encourage the use of new or developing technologies while promoting more competition within the sector.

Options available to the U.K. that could also be expanded in the States include:

  • Satellite: Broadband via a satellite dish on the side of a property is one option for those who do not qualify for FTTC and are struggling with slow Internet speeds. While claims of 20 Mbps speeds don’t necessarily bear out, speeds do seem to stay north of 10 Mbps, which for some rural communities must still seem a world away. The only problem is the price: A large initial outlay is common.
  • The White Space Solution: Utilizing so called “white space” in the radio bandwidth isn’t an entirely new idea. Television bandwidth was freed up after the digital switch over and sold off as part of the “digital dividend” to U.K. mobile networks, which now use it to host their 4G networks. Freeing up FM radio signal when the U.K. eventually makes the switch to digital radio offers a huge amount of potential for delivering rural broadband speeds through existing wireless technology. As yet, though, there’s no timescale for when this is likely to happen, if indeed it does.
  • Hybrid Networks: The so-called “digital village pump” involves communities installing subsidized fiber points in a strategic location that independent providers can then use to pump out broadband via a public Wi-Fi network. These networks could prove very cost-effective and are already operating in parts of the U.K. Because the networks can be pushed out well beyond FTTC effective operating distances, via microwave hops, it could be a viable solution to bringing super-fast broadband to the remotest of areas. Many consider this a short- to medium-term option, however, as Wi-Fi signals become unreliable in bad weather.
  • Femtocells: After successful pilots in 12 rural communities, Vodafone last year began installing its Rural Open Sure Signal technology in rural communities without super-fast broadband or mobile voice and data coverage. The tech uses femtocells to boost 3G signals from small units, which can then be used to transmit public Vodafone 3G signal to the surrounding area.

There are other alternatives out there for rural communities, with independent networks like Hyperoptic and Gigaclear bringing broadband to some areas and then either acting as the ISP or offering customers the option to sign up to a BT or Sky broadband package. There are also hopes being placed in technologies such as laser-radio, which is being trialed in the United States and can offer speeds of up to 2 Gbps from 10 km.

One thing not up for debate? That there are problems with the current state of affairs in the U.K. broadband market, especially in rural areas. Some regard BT’s ownership of the underlying network as a monopoly situation that stifles infrastructure development. Criticism of BT UK’s failure to create real competition has been leveled against both the government overall and the regulator, Ofcom, in particular, as well as BT itself.

Real competition is essential to create solutions for the patchwork of rural communities across the country.

There is cause for optimism though, with open investment and commitment into alternative technologies. Also, Ofcom proposing to force BT to open up its fiber-optic network in April 2017 means other providers can effectively piggyback their technology off its lines. The hope is that this will push down business broadband prices and create a surge in providers entering the rural broadband market — smaller players as well as the likes of Vodafone and Talk Talk, which have been lobbying for this for years. We’ll have to wait and see, but certainly U.S. carriers and channel partners should keep a close eye on developments.

Patrick Lincoln is founder of Unified Communications Company Solution IP, which he set up in 2006. Patrick spent many of his formative years building relationships within the telecoms community in the South West of England and has written extensively on developments in the telecoms sector. You can connect with Solution IP on Twitter or Facebook.


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