We need better broadband but the politicians can’t agree how to deliver it

Connecting up every house is a not a job for the fainthearted. woodleywonderworks, CC BY

Access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection is now accepted as essential. So it’s no surprise that access to broadband and infrastructure investment are policies found in the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat manifestos (any mention of digital infrastructure is notably absent from the UKIP manifesto).

One of the underlying issues is that a sizable minority of those living in the UK – official stats say more than one in ten – have never used the internet. Many others do not have internet access in their home, especially those living in remote and rural areas where outdated telecoms infrastructure has yet to be upgraded to match today’s digital needs.

On average a fifth of homes and businesses in rural areas can be considered “not served” or “under-served” in terms of their connectivity. Surveys conducted by the dot.rural Digital Economy Hub at the University of Aberdeen reveal the various problems people face.

Some want internet access but service providers can’t connect their homes through lack of broadband infrastructure in their local area. Others struggle with very slow or unreliable connections. This makes both personal and business life online difficult or impossible as we rely more and more on the internet.

In fact, the government’s Digital by Default campaign looks almost guaranteed to exclude millions of people nationwide without major internet infrastructure improvements – and this should be a major cause for concern. The House of Commons Select Committee for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs held a Rural Broadband Inquiry for just this reason, particularly in the light of plans to make the Common Agricultural Policy payments process online-only.

Reaching the last 5%

So are party promises likely to actually address these issues? The Conservatives pledge to deliver “super-fast broadband” to urban and rural areas and provide 95% coverage across the UK by the end of 2017. This is a project that has been underway for more than two years. However, there are already concerns that this target will miss delivering broadband to people’s homes – it was originally scheduled for the end of 2016.

Broadband Delivery UK, the government’s funding vehicle tasked to roll out fixed-line infrastructure improvements to consumers, has largely concentrated on the “low hanging fruit” of upgrading infrastructure in densely-populated areas. Money spent here benefits more people. But what of the last 5%, or even the last 1%, far from the lights of the city and fibre-optic cables?

Commercial ISPs cannot be relied upon to connect rural areas, due to the high cost of laying infrastructure to supply only a few customers – a classic case of market failure, acknowledged by both parties. Labour’s claim that “all parts of the country” will “benefit from affordable, high-speed broadband by the end of the parliament” sounds – to put it kindly – optimistic. There’s no detail as to how this might be achieved in practice.

More realistically, the Conservatives at least propose to subsidise the cost of installing satellite services capable of super-fast broadband speeds for the very hardest-to-reach areas. Clearly an acknowledgement of the need for alternative technologies is welcome. This could provide sufficiently fast connections without the enormous costs of rolling out many miles of fibre-optic cable. Encouraging use of satellite broadband connectivity could be the most pragmatic solution to reach the most remote-living few percent of the UK population. It certainly a useful start.

Fix now or for the future

Is satellite broadband an acceptable long-term solution, or a quick fix? It will depend on reliability, cost, and the difference in speed compared to fixed-line services. Welsh and Scottish governments have run similar schemes for their remote rural areas. Our own work in setting up the Rural Public Access WiFi Service illustrates how better internet access can improve business efficiency, increase user adoption of digital technologies and provide wider access to public services, cost savings, enhanced business revenues and sociability.

The Conservatives also pledge to free up more of the telecommunications spectrum currently reserved for public sector use. This would provide more capacity for mobile phone providers to deliver enhanced 3G and 4G mobile broadband for phone users, as an another alternative to fixed-line internet.

However this runs into similar problems – densely populated urban areas will clearly benefit from more capacity to relieve overburdened networks, but offering cellular data services for rural areas would require service providers to install expensive mobile phone masts and equipment – and so are unlikely to see much benefit.

From the point of view of someone living in west Wales, the Scottish Highlands, or even the heart of England’s shire counties, this particular Conservative pledge for mobile connectivity sounds like a case of attempting to run before you can walk.

We’ve demonstrated how digital inclusion can change people’s lives and possible ways of connecting the most remote. While there’s no instant solutions in the party manifestos, it is encouraging at least that the importance of the digital agenda is recognised across the board.