Giga and better: the path to rural broadband modernisation

Giga and better: the path to rural broadband modernisation
The race is on to modernise broadband infrastructure outside of cities to guarantee equal service for all. How are things proceeding, and what can countries learn from Sweden’s approach?

“Superfast” broadband will no longer cut it for modern consumers. Only 24Mbps? Forget about it.

Governments across the world are making 2021 the year they accelerate efforts to modernise their rural broadband infrastructure so they can deliver gigabit broadband (with speeds of over 1000Mbps) to everyone.

In an era of decentralised working and an exodus from cities, access to high-speed broadband makes it easier for employees to undertake their work remotely, and enhances the possibilities for launching and managing businesses from anywhere.

In the UK last year, every home and business was granted the legal right to a broadband connection of at least 10 Mbps, courtesy of a government Universal Service Obligation (USO). This long-awaited decision couldn’t have arrived at a better time, given the added strain that networks have found themselves under during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s hardly gigabit speeds.
 
In 2019, Boris Johnson had already committed £5 billion to a “ludicrously unrealistic” plan for every UK home to have gigabit-capable access by the end of 2025. The government’s Project Gigabit, subsequently launched in March 2020, aims to do just that, although only £1.2 billion of the promised funding has been delivered thus far, and there is no guarantee that rural areas won’t be left behind once more.

Right now, fibre broadband is available to approximately 96% of UK homes and businesses, but this is mostly in the form of copper cables connecting to fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) installations. Fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) is only available to a relatively small proportion of the country – approximately 37% of homes, as of earlier this year.

In contrast, Ofcom reports that full fibre is available to just 21%, up from 18% in September 2020. This admittedly sharp increase is driven predominantly by larger fibre infrastructure operators like BT and Virgin Media, but smaller providers, such as Cityfibre and Community Fibre have sprung up to deliver local fibre networks too.

Feeling confident, BT has increased the rate at which it is building FTTP broadband connections, with its Openreach subsidiary increasing its commitment to 25 million installations by the end of 2026, at a rate of 4 million new premises a year, in time for the closure of its copper network. Of this 25 million, a quarter – 6.2 million homes – will be rural properties.

However, customers in rural areas are getting a raw deal, with high prices and aging infrastructure meaning that they are paying a premium for worse service. In these more sparsely populated areas, there is little prospect of multiple networks being built; Openreach is currently the only operator with a large-scale rural network, where an estimated 600,000 properties are struggling with speeds below 10 Mbps.

Companies like Gigaclear are focusing on offering connectivity speeds of up to 1Gbps to the most rural locations poorly served by other networks – provided there is sufficient interest from residents.

This highlights the most pressing issue with the process of rural broadband modernisation; there comes a point where there is little incentive for large operators to continue expanding into less economically viable rural areas, when it would be more efficient and profitable for them to install new lines in high density areas. Combined with the difficulty of securing government funding, this leaves rural areas in a tight spot. Yet, without the investment, it would be hard for rural areas to attract businesses or new residents demanding connectivity, so it really needs governments to step up.

Across in Europe, other nations are looking to bolster their own provisions; Ireland is accelerating its €3 billion plan to provide half a million homes with high-speed broadband, while Spain considers modernisation of its broadband network imperative to prevent depopulation of rural areas.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Deutschland is rapidly reversing its meagre 4% fibre penetration with a gigabit expansion program expected to provide 25 million connections by the end of 2022. And Italy is reported to be upping its own spending to €6.7 billion, courtesy of European pandemic recovery funding, to improve connectivity infrastructure throughout the country.

All of Europe ought to look to their Nordic neighbours, who boast some of the most advanced FTTP networks in the world. Sweden offers the best example, having, since the 1990s, recognised the importance of ensuring superfast Internet for all citizens, and today, gigabit coverage is at 95% across the country.

Despite 87% of its population living in cities, Sweden nonetheless ensures high-speed connections even in the sparsely populated north. Last year, the Post and Telecom Agency (Post & Telestyrelsen) granted SEK106 million to 44 rural broadband development projects, as the country aims for total connectivity by 2025.

One of the reasons for its success is that local councils in Sweden maintain an “open access” policy in regard to their networks, allowing multiple service providers to deliver connections on the same equipment. With this model, Sweden has been able to create a competitive environment offering residents more choice at a lower cost, even in rural areas.

Denmark’s OpenNet, a major Cerillion customer, employs the same open access model, providing access to multiple Service Providers and Infrastructure Owners through its centralised wholesale platform.

Nevertheless, the UK remains weak compared with its European neighbours – third from the bottom according to a Market Panorama report – when it comes to gigabit-capable broadband networks, having slid down the ranking table for Internet speeds to being “among the slowest countries in Europe,” owing to the rate of gigabit-capable and FTTP deployments.

The outlook is not so bleak across the entire British Isles; JT (Jersey Telecom) completed its rollout of FTTP way back in 2018, connecting 40,000 homes and 5,000 businesses across the island with download speeds that, considered independently, would place it among the top 5 countries worldwide. Working with such a geographically small area to be connected is certainly a boon for providers, as the high broadband speeds of Liechtenstein, Andorra and Hong Kong also testify.

For more populous areas, smaller, non-profit providers may be the answer, such as Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), a Lancashire-based organisation that offers gigabit FTTP broadband to homes and businesses throughout the region, run by a local team and supported by volunteers.

Such organisations might one day mimic the success of a community-owned gigabit network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has delivered the fastest web connectivity in the US, and an extra $2.69 billion to the local economy since its establishment in 2010, reversing the fortunes of the once-ailing town.

It’s worth considering that, even if rural broadband infrastructure was on par with that in urban areas, adoption rates would still broadly be lower due to the former populations’ tendency to be older and less educated. But with more businesses offering more permanent work-from-home situations in the near-future, a demographic shift may be underway as former city dwellers relocate.

Connectivity egality through rural broadband modernisation is long overdue and patently expensive, but is an essential step in eliminating the global digital divide.