Broadband provision in remote and hard-to-reach areas

Vivian Gounari writes on the need for attention on digital inclusion which is holistic and has the most vulnerable in mind, focusing on underlooked, remote areas.

As the UK transitions from 3G to 4G/5G services, concerns about broadband accessibility and cost have resurfaced with urgency – particularly in overlooked and underfunded rural and more remote areas. The national disparities in offsetting these inequalities and ensuring a fair transition towards faster, accessible broadband highlight the need for attention on digital inclusion which is holistic and has the most vulnerable in mind.

While phasing out 3G networks offers significant benefits – notably the energy efficiency of 5G networks – the impact on vulnerable and isolated communities remains concerning. Unequal coverage from all four operators further complicates the situation, as Scotland lags behind at 46% compared to 81% in Northern Ireland. This may result in people switching providers, which can breed expensive exit fees ranging from 64-99% of remaining monthly charges. In recognising these financial burdens, the UK and devolved Governments have rapidly engaged in projects to extend broadband access in hard-to-reach and rural areas. However, these projects have only been successful in part.

Ofcom highlights some of the impressive progress as the ‘number of homes able to get gigabit-capable broadband…[is] up to almost 21.9 million’. However, disparities persist: while 75% of UK-wide urban areas are gigabit-capable that number plummets to 40% for rural areas. National comparisons are even starker as only 24% of rural areas in Scotland access gigabit-capable broadband, compared to 70% of such areas in Northern Ireland. Though Northern Ireland’s projects can provide many cues for good practice, Governments and industry experts need to examine beyond the successes to identify where and how investment stalemates have occurred. 

Let’s cut technological jargon that often hinders discussion on broadband. Simply stated:

  • Broadband is a way of connecting to the internet.
  • Fixed-line broadband is an internet connection in your home, delivered via your phoneline or through the provider’s network of cables. The three most common types are: ADSL; cable; and fibre. Fibre is the most advanced and guarantees the highest speeds.
  • A ‘decent connection’ required speeds of at least 10bm/s while ‘superfast broadband’ is 30mb/s. As a general rule, you’ll need 10mb/s per broadband user – though some deem this to be insufficient.
  • Mobile broadband is a way to deliver internet to devices while away from home or on the move, typically through a SIM card.
  • Depending on the provider the speed of each network will vary – for example, EE’s 4G can reach 36mb/s whereas Vodafone’s reaches 22.4mb/s. Other factors including signal and coverage, will impact speed as well.

Providers may emphasise that the majority of their customers face no issues with accessing mobile or fixed-line broadband. For instance Vodafone reports that only 4% of data relies on their 3G network – suggesting that a transition would not be disruptive to most of its users. However there is a significant difference between access and take-up, as many cannot afford to make use of these services. According to Ofcom 5.5 million customers are using devices reliant on 2G or 3G connectivity, often due to the cost of updating or purchasing suitable devices, whilst 8% of UK-wide landmass is not covered by any one mobile operator. 

Though improving broadband infrastructure is a reserved power, each nation has developed its own projects. This has been conducted in partnership with the UK Government and through private investments, to upgrade their infrastructure and finally reach rural and remote parts of the country – areas which remain the most digitally excluded. As mentioned above, Northern Ireland (NI) has made significant progress in ensuring these areas can also access full-fibre broadband.

Despite this progress, 7% of rural areas in NI lack access to decent broadband while 3% cannot get broadband speeds of 2mb/s. Essentially, the more remote areas remain trapped in inaccessible blank spots. While narratives of success take up attention and precedence as some areas access impressive, fast broadband.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of NI’s projects is essential for capturing the wider challenges faced by Governments and the private sector when addressing broadband inequalities.

A case study: Northern Ireland’s Project Stratum

The most significant improvements in Northern Ireland’s connectivity occurred after 2019. Though several nationwide projects targeting broadband had been ongoing – notably Local Full Fibre Networks and Rural Gigabit Connectivity – the real breakthrough came with Project Stratum. 

Project Stratum’s £165 million investment was mainly funded by the Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party’s deal following the 2017 general election, partly explaining NI’s outstanding performance given that Scotland and Wales received £49.5 million and £57 million respectively for their projects. 

Though most other projects of this scale are awarded to BT’s OpenReach, the winning contractor was Fibrus. Fibrus is a broadband provider founded in 2019 which only uses full-fibre technology, unlike BT’s OpenReach which sometimes relies on less costly copper cables. Fibrus’ commitment to future-proof technology is both commendable and effective, as seen in their work in West Tyrone – which now boasts 66% access to full-fibre in rural areas. This is up from 8% in 2019.

However, Fibrus’ successes conceal some of the cracks in their approach. Though 97% of Stratum’s interventions are in local rural areas, the commitment to full-fibre technology meant 3% of other premises were completely omitted from any upgrade. This was because the return on investment was not commercially viable – the 3% without a basic speed of 2mp/s would cost £24 million of taxpayers’ money (15% of the original investment).

Though Fibrus has extended work to an additional 8,500 premises, this has required deadlines to be pushed forward to 2025 and beyond most providers’ 3G switch-off plans. For a considerable amount of time the most remote premises will experience a state of ‘blackout’ as a consequence. Better technology for some has been guaranteed at the expense of no technology for others – deepening persistent divides and making postcode lotteries part and parcel of rural living. 

For those still not covered by Project Stratum, the only available remedy is to request coverage under the Universal Service Obligation (USO). The USO is capped at £3,400 with consumers required to pay the excess costs. Though higher than previous vouchers and subsidies, the anticipated costs are beyond most people’s capabilities – especially in a cost-of-living crisis. A 2020 example of 17 neighbours in Cambridgeshire being quoted £101,855.00 (or £5,991.47 per premise) to upgrade their street challenges the notion of ‘universal’, let alone who bears the ‘obligation’. Unfortunately it is unrealistic to expect residential premises to take advantage of these offers at higher rates, making the safety-net solution unsuitable for the problem.  

Finding an Alternative: Mobile Broadband 

4G is an alternative to fixed line broadband and Ofcom estimates that uptake of 4G would reduce the number of premises qualifying for USO from 608,000 to 189,000.

However, many simply cannot afford to acquire devices that connect to 4G, and plans for switching-off 3G have only exacerbated unease regarding connectivity. After visiting one of the digital inclusion hubs in Good Things’ National Digital Inclusion Network, the challenges faced by rural communities were made apparent:

The need for a digital device is quite heavy. A lot of families are struggling, a lot of individuals are struggling. They don’t have the finances to support themselves to be able to purchase their own device’ Staff, Community Organisation in Inverness, Scotland

Despite the hub being centrally located, with a busy train station closeby, people from across the Scottish Highlands relied on their services to access free data and receive some digital skills training. In effect, increasing ‘hidden costs’ of accessing the internet. As we spoke to hub staff, some residents came in to donate their unused devices in the hope they could assist someone in their local area. Although these community ties are needed for helping the most vulnerable acquire devices they cannot make up for the demand and lack of supply. It is apparent that access to quality, affordable devices is as essential as providing fixed-line or mobile broadband at a fair price. This is especially so for offline individuals – with one in three would be encouraged to go online if devices and/or data was cheaper.

Though more investments in mobile and fixed-line broadband are welcoming transitions to fast, reliable, and economically competitive connectivity, it is important to be conscious of how existing inequalities may deepen, though not widen. Where areas remain too remote to be commercially viable, the Government has a responsibility to further substitute and provide a universal basic level of broadband. Unfortunately voucher schemes do not go far enough, while the accelerating rate of digitisation and infrastructural change is pushing people further away from a minimum standard of digital living. Though successes and innovation should be celebrated, it is important that it doesn’t come at the expense of others’ access or overshadow pressing work that remains undone. Addressing these divides is vital, and something which must be attended to holistically and with the most vulnerable in mind.