By Mike Ianiri, Equinox.
Rural areas are still being held back by poor telecoms coverage, particularly high-speed internet connectivity and 4G coverage.
The precise financial implications, to the UK’s rural economy, are difficult to calculate, but it’s easy to work out what the issues are:
- Reduced productivity due to slower/non-existent connectivity
- Reduced social inclusion, on consumer and business levels
- Reduced opportunity to take an active role in the digital economy
With people being encouraged to buy local and support small businesses, a lack of high-speed telecoms in rural areas is going to make this difficult.
However, we believe there are ways that the issue of poor rural coverage can be tackled; some requiring government and operators to work together, some that rural businesses can implement immediately (at very low cost) to get internet connection with workable speeds.
- Rural roaming
So far, Ofcom has failed to ask operators in the UK to allow roaming even though this could make a massive difference in rural areas.
Sometimes known as wholesale access, rural roaming means you can move between mobile operators’ networks based on signal strength. As your provider’s signal drops, you can move to another provider. With 91% of the UK landmass getting signal from at least one provider, this would significantly improve connectivity availability. Only 77% of the country has good coverage from all four networks.
- 700Mhz to Rural Areas First
5G will, supposedly, transform how we use data. With ultra-fast transmission speeds, we’ll be able to do more from wherever – unless you’re in the country. The high frequency wavelengths used by 5G can only travel in straight lines and over much shorter distances than 3/4G.
However, Ofcom’s release of the 700Mhz frequency band would allow 5G rollout to much more of the country. It would be a little slower, but that’s better than nothing. It’s great to see that Ofcom has set rural coverage requirements within the contracts the mobile operators are bidding for.
- Make use of EU funding available
National and EU governments have made £billions available to support the rollout of telecoms connectivity. The UK government has spent over £6 billion, through BDUK, to take coverage up to 95%.
European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) grant funding is available with 921 million Euros allocated between 2014 & 2020 to help rural economies. This includes connecting rural locations to high speed connectivity.
Will it be enough to bring rural connectivity to 100%? Our feeling is that this is unlikely. Even if they do manage it, they may find that the technology has moved on and the funded connectivity is already out of date.
- Use 4G instead of fibre
‘High-speed broadband’ and ‘fibre’ are often in the same sentence. However, the cost of rolling out fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) is as high as £100,000 per cabinet. This cost has to be paid by someone. It cannot be passed to the user and the operators aren’t prepared to pay these figures, so it isn’t being implemented. Government support (BDUK) has taken coverage up to 95.1% of UK premises.
Although satellite used to be an alternative go-to option, it is becoming less popular, more expensive (particularly the installation), and 4G now, generally, offers better speeds.
So, in the areas where high speed broadband isn’t available, 4G can be an acceptable substitute. With data costs reducing 4G doesn’t have to be expensive unless your business is an exceptionally high data user. Providing you have decent access 4G is a good option. It can be implemented immediately, with no (or very little) additional investment in equipment, and you’ll get pretty good data speeds.
- Make use of co-working spaces
Micro-businesses (1-4 staff) and remote workers can benefit in a number of ways from using the growing number of rural co-working spaces. Suitably positioned so they have high-speed connectivity, they bring a range of benefits to their members:
- Providing high-speed connectivity
- Enabling business networking
- Sharing of best practice
- Face to face contact
- Getting out of the house!
We’ll probably see many more of these popping up and even if the government does take proper action to improve rural connectivity, it’s likely many people will opt to use these hubs.
Although telecoms is a small part of how the rural economy can be boosted (suggestions of up to £246 billion of additional rurally generated revenue), it’s an important part. We rely on being able to communicate effectively both to do business and to live our lives. Telecoms (including Internet access) is a big and important part of that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Ianiri is Director of independent telecoms brokerage Equinox. Mike works with companies, charities and other organisations to help them choose the right telecoms packages for their needs and thereby reduce their costs. He is particularly knowledgeable on the integration of IT and telecoms in business. www.equinoxcomms.co.uk