Simon Galton

Liberal Democrat County & District Councillor Learn more

Update on Rural Broadband

by simongalton on 31 July, 2014

What goes here?

BT is upgrading with fibre connections to its cabinets, but is that enough to bring good quality internet to rural homes?

Residents in rural areas have had the short end of the stick when it comes to broadband. New infrastructure has always been rolled out in densely populated areas first, and the further your property is from an exchange, the more broadband signals degrade under copper wires.

For this reason, the Government set up a rural broadband programme, managed by BDUK, to bring superfast broadband to rural homes. Their aim was to bring speeds of at least 24Mbps to 90% of homes, and a minimum speed of 2Mbps to the remaining 10%. The County Council have managed the programme across Leicestershire, using a combination of local and central government funding, to subsidise the extension of superfast broadband under the BDUK template.

However, this approach has had limitations. The first is that BT, who won all of the contracts under the BDUK scheme, provides Fibre to the Cabinet rather than Fibre to the Premises. This means that BT only provides Fibre connections as far as their green cabinets, which are then connected to homes and businesses through copper wires. Homes and businesses located near the cabinet will receive speeds up to 24Mbps, but further away, the signal degrades and many properties will be unlikely to receive the 2Mbps minimum.

The second limitation is that internet usage has moved on since the targets of 24Mbps and 2Mbps were set. Modern internet usage is much more data-heavy, with families requiring a connection with enough bandwidth to serve multiple devices, and with streaming services such as Netflix requiring a minimum of 5Mbps to operate properly. The EU has now set new targets for its Member States to provide all properties with a minimum connection of 100Mbps for 50% of its properties and 30Mbps for the remainder by 2020.

As a result, the County Council will now be implementing an “Extension Programme”, offering further investment to extend superfast broadband to areas that aren’t benefitting from the current programme and will be specifying a speed of 30Mpbs, although in practice, BT will allow for this to fall to 15Mbps during peak times.

After much lobbying, from myself and numerous residents, the Council appears to have acknowledged the limitations of the standard BDUK template and is now exploring alternative approaches for other areas. They are about to commence an Open Market Review that will determine which areas of the County will not benefit from commercial investment or the current phase one roll out as part of the BT Contract. This will determine the intervention area where the Council will look to invest a further £9m of Government, LLEP and local council funding as part of the Superfast Broadband Extension Project. The process includes a 5 week period of public consultation starting in September.

A new map will be produced showing market led and existing investment – this will enable potential bidders to submit bids early next year for the remaining areas not included in the current roll out. The vision is to achieve 100% coverage by 2018 but the tender process will determine how many additional properties will actually be included.

Concern remains that even with the planned additional investment committed for the extension programme some deep rural areas in the eastern part of Harborough including the Welland Valley are unlikely to benefit if the new contract utilises current technologies based on upgrading exchanges and using existing old copper telephone lines. Experience suggest that if you live more than 1.5 km from the nearest cabinet or exchange speeds reduce significantly which means households considerably beyond this distance are unlikely to get much benefit due to technical limitations.

This means a different approach is needed in rural areas which can be 4 or 5km from the nearest cabinet or exchange. I welcome the fact that some of the funding for the extension programme is being held back to enable alternative solutions to be explored for the remaining 6% of properties in Leicestershire many of which are in the area I represent.

I have been deeply impressed by some of the smaller providers and community approaches to providing broadband in rural areas. By persuading landowners and volunteers of the mutual benefits of improving broadband connections in their areas, many of them have been able to lay miles of fibre optic cables at a far lower cost than BT’s traditional approach. By providing Fibre to the Premises connections, they are able to offer full broadband connections of up to 1,000Mbps, a future-proofed solution offering some of the best speeds in the country.

Such independent providers can come with drawbacks, such as higher subscription fees and installation costs than BT usually charges, but they may be the only way that residents in deep rural areas can achieve a good quality broadband connection.

Either way, I don’t think the decision should be mine or the County Council’s to make. I want to see residents from affected areas presented with the facts and the different options with the advantages of drawbacks of each. I hope that Council officers will continue to consult with parishes and residents of these areas and for the Council’s final decision to be based on their wishes.

I will continue to campaign for local communities to be listened to.

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