So, how far are we from the government target of superfast broadband being available to 95 percent of premises by December 2017? It feels like quite a way, particularly when many council contracts with additional public money are only set at 90 percent coverage. As you may have seen a few years ago, the government select committee was critical of the coalition government's broadband strategy and is due to look at this the issue again, with our members lining up to give evidence.
As we know, broadband is not only essential for residents and businesses, but is critical for local growth and tourism. There is evidence that people are choosing holiday accommodation and housing based in part, on whether there is access to fast broadband or not. Holding BDUK to the delivery of quality provision in less profitable areas is critical but has been hard work, particularly when they have been rewarded with much higher commercial take-up than expected.
In many rural areas, residents and businesses are very widely spread but have high expectations and requirements, as more people than ever work from home. For example, a small hamlet in my ward has authors, Solicitors, a QC and teachers all needing broadband to download and upload large amounts of data, often to meet short deadlines without fail.
Broadband is not the only issue in rural areas, phone coverage is also challenging. The government want the UK to be a world leader in 5G, albeit 5G is not yet officially defined. The target is to get so called ‘voice coverage' to 90 per cent of premises by the end of 2017. O2 bid for the spectrum to roll out 4G and as part of that contract are required to cover 98 per cent of the land mass. The LGA have worked to ensure that there is an improvement in the actual on the ground experience in rural areas, and a paper will be available to members shortly.
It was announced recently that £440m was to be spent on superfast broadband for 600,000 more homes and businesses in rural areas. However, this is the same money coming back from the BDUK contract because of unexpectedly high take-up of broadband by paying customers as well as "efficiency savings" from the 44 further projects across the country. 1.5m premises have paid for broadband, bringing £292m to reinvest. Not surprisingly, Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley is encouraging people to sign up.
The BDUK contract was originally for fibre broadband and to get the speeds in rural areas, fibre would need to be replaced all the way to the premises or nearby. Thus rural areas need to think of new ways to access good WiFi speeds. One such innovative idea is ‘WiSpire' which uses church spires to transmit signal from church towers. The Church of England have offered 16,000 of its churches to support the initiative, which is already operating out of 47 churches in Norfolk, each covering a 2.5mile radius. Cornwall has also made early and determined strides to good effect, including it as part of the initial planning spec for their eco communities.
The national average download speed is claimed to have increased by 28 per cent to 37Mbps. If you are using old wires from the cabinet out, then these figures look like pipe dreams!
There are steps that residents can take to improve their access, I found that changing to a provider who had updated at the exchange, doubled our speed to the figure shown as locally expected, to a best of 7Mbps download. I have a meeting with all interested parties in that hamlet I mentioned, so wish me luck!
Residents can test their broadband speeds on the LGA's Up to Speed website.
The 90 per cent target was originally set as part of BDUK's first funding phase (£530m from the Government / BBC TV Licence fee) and this was initially targeted to be achieved during 2015, although they later tweaked that to "by 2016" in order to allow some breathing room after administrative delays.
Councils progress differs between local areas with some not yet at 90 per cent coverage and some close to 95 per cent coverage. These are the latest figures I could find (June 2016), but give you an idea of the difference in progress in local areas - www.thinkbroadband.com/news/7452-a-study-of-what-the-bduk-projects-delivered-in-phase-1.html.
Find out more about WiSpire.