Hardest to reach must not be left offline

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee fears hard to reach rural communities are being overlooked in the race to upgrade basic broadband to superfast for 95% of the country’s premises by 2017.
Chair’s comments

Committee Chair Anne McIntosh MP said:

“People living in the hard-to-reach 5% of premises need the same access as the rest to online and digital services.

There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none.”

In their report, Rural broadband and digital-only services, MPs raise fears that a focus on improving access for most of the country may leave a minority with little or no ability to use key government services switching to online-only or mainly online delivery.

The Government plans to transform broadband require 95% of premises to have superfast speeds of 24 Megabits per second by 2017 then, although BT told the Committee that that target might slip into 2018.

Miss McIntosh added:

“The Government has committed to providing universal basic broadband coverage and superfast broadband coverage for 95% of premises by 2017.

We are concerned that the current broadband rollout targets are based on inaccurate assumptions that universal basic broadband coverage has largely been achieved when the reality is that many rural communities are still struggling with no access, or slow broadband speeds.

There is a fear that upgrading the majority who already have access to basic broadband is creating an even bigger gap between those with and those completely without broadband access.”

Broadband delivery

Speed and delivery are vital components of the broadband rollout plan. The majority of broadband available in the UK is currently delivered by fixed-line methods, requiring a physical cable between premises and street cabinets. The most popular delivery method being Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC). FTTC can present two main problems. Firstly; the further you are from the cabinet, the slower the broadband your premise received; and, secondly there remain some premises where the infrastructure simply cannot reach.

Miss McIntosh recommended:

“Alongside the continued investigation into alternative broadband delivery methods, subsidised access to Satellite broadband for those who are unable to access fixed-line broadband or broadband of basic speeds.”

As the basic and superfast broadband is rolled out, the minimum speed committed to by the Government is 2 Megabits per second. The Committee strongly recommends that this speed is too low, must be reassessed and a new minimum speed identified.

Miss McIntosh said:

“The Universal Service Commitment of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) is already outdated. This is a minimum speed commitment to the public and it must reflect modern technological demands, it is not high enough; 10 Mbps is a more suitable target. Further, it should be regularly reviewed to ensure the UK does not slip behind other European countries.”

Digital-only services

From 1 January 2015 all CAP funding applications must be made online-only. This is part of a wider Government policy for services to become ‘digital by default’.

Miss McIntosh said:

“Farmers are key drivers of the rural economy, ensuring that all farmers are able to access the new online-only CAP applications later this year is absolutely vital. The new CAP represents a change in the system and delivery. Defra and the RPA must draw on lessons learnt in the past to minimise the risk of further disallowance and also ensure that all farmers have adequate access to the system.”

Rural broadband policy

It has become evident during the course of the inquiry that poor broadband coverage is not only an issue in remote, rural areas. Premises in developed, urban areas can face the same issues if they are located a long distance from their local street cabinet.

Miss McIntosh said:

“We recognise that poor broadband access is not exclusively a rural issue. The Government’s ‘Innovation Fund’ is the first step towards providing broadband to the final premises without access, whether they are in rural or urban areas.”

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