Closing the digital divide

7 mins read

What can be done to improve connectivity in rural areas and remote communities? Neil Tyler examines the challenges.

Unacceptable levels of connectivity in rural and poorly served areas have been an issue of concern for years, but it has been during the course of the past eighteen months when people have had to adapt to new ways of working, caused by the pandemic, that calls on Government and ISPs have grown to improve connectivity so that people are better able to adapt to and use new ways of working.

Over the course of 2020-21 businesses and people have had to change their behaviours with 20 per cent of the UK workforce put on furlough and 55 per cent obliged to work from home. Even today, around 40 per cent of workers are still spending part of their working week at home.

But while the pandemic unleashed seismic changes to the way the UK economy operates, there has also been a significant rise in entrepreneurship and in the number of new businesses that have been opened.

The UK has seen thousands of new businesses being registered, but for those who have set up new businesses or who are simply trying to grow existing ones, especially in rural areas, it means having to overcome additional challenges such as poor broadband connectivity. In many cases, unreliable and slow broadband is holding back business development and is proving a barrier to success.

The rise in entrepreneurship has effectively highlighted the deep digital divide that still exists between rural and urban communities and, when most of today’s transactions take place online and where an online presence is essential to establish a brand or business, a reliable, high-speed broadband connection has certainly never been more important.

Rural communities have tended to be overlooked by network providers who have historically focused on developing infrastructure in densely populated areas, where there are the most potential customers.

With the advent of 5G, for example, the costs of rolling out an expensive backhaul in remote or rural communities is prohibitive, as the investment required tends not to be matched by future revenues.

While covering every rural location is commercially unviable for mobile network operators (MNO) who are forced to spend billions on licences to use spectrum it is possible, in some cases, for smaller providers and community organisations to fill in gaps in coverage. Back in 2019 Ofcom introduced several new types of licence to enable smaller providers to operate networks in local areas.

Users can operate in an MNO’s licensed spectrum as long as they can show that the MNO isn’t currently using the spectrum they wish to operate in or that the spectrum they are looking to use wouldn’t interfere or disrupt the MNO’s operations.

Just 1 per cent of the UK landmass accounts for upwards of 45 per cent of total mobile date consumed so this approach offers an opportunity for rural or isolated communities to set up and deliver improved services themselves.

But whatever the solution, the UK’s digital divide is at a critical level. Around 20 per cent of households in rural areas cannot get superfast broadband and many more are struggling with internet speeds as slow as 0.12Mbps. That level of unreliability, when it comes to broadband connectivity, is a serious obstacle not only to businesses but to ordinary people looking to access essential services or to buy goods.

The focus here is on new businesses, but the challenges associated with poor connectivity are also a problem for more established ones, who are unable to manage their sales, customer service, social media and payments.

Prior to the pandemic rural businesses had reported that slow internet speeds were proving a huge obstacle to further growth and a survey, conducted by the National Farmers’ Union at the end of 2019, showed that while 90 per cent of them believed high-speed broadband was essential for their business, 26 per cent said that slow connectivity had been a barrier to the use of those digital solutions.

For businesses unable to access high-speed broadband, the benefits of harnessing innovative enterprise technology to improve levels of productivity and drive sales remains unobtainable in too many cases. Whether that’s autonomous tractors, farmland drones, digital tools for small businesses, anywhere, anytime access and radio direct to phones many of these opportunities for industry and rural communities in the UK, are hindered by one thing: a lack of connectivity.

Impact of 5G

It’s hoped that 5G technology will be able to address the needs and aspirations of communities and businesses in rural locations in ways that 4G, 3G, and 2G have not been able to do.

According to Paul Hart, Executive VP and General Manager, Radio Power at NXP Semiconductors, “5G will not only be able to deliver capacity and data rate increases but will give us the ability to connect billions of devices to the internet, offering ultra-reliable, ultra-low latency communications for a huge range of applications that range from low-data rate environmental sensors through automated industrial control systems to distributed virtual-reality systems.”

Yet while the expansion of 5G network connectivity is certainly higher than it was for 4G, when it was first rolled out, around 600 million 5G connections will be in place globally by the end of this year, there is a sense that rural communities are continuing to miss-out on the benefits 5G can deliver.

Hart makes the point that when it comes to equipment suppliers and operators, “We cannot think of 5G being an environment where one size fits all. It is not enough to simply build a generation of macro basestation towers at a spacing of 10km. Network capacity has to adjust to population density not just of people but of devices.”

He believes that this will require a much richer range of basestation options, while the spectrum usage of these systems will have to vary as well.

“In rural areas, re-farming of sub-gigahertz bands will provide widespread coverage whereas in the urban environment, basestations will take advantage of the bandwidth capacity offered by frequencies up to 6GHz and even millimetre-wave bands,” Hart says.

Connectivity is costly, but research from CCS Insight and Three UK has shown that those living in rural areas could be connected to the next generation of gigabit broadband faster and for half the cost of fixed line technology if the UK government was to back Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) through changes to the Electronic Communications Code and Permitted Development Rights regime.

While 20% of rural areas can access ultrafast Wi-Fi, that leaves four in five having to wait on fibre to enable them to live and work more flexibly – as a consequence, significant infrastructure changes are going to be needed before 2025 for this to happen.

However, Three UK and CCS Insight believe that FWA could be installed for half the cost of full fibre and still provide a comparable level of connectivity but for that to happen policy reforms will be required to enable wider access to FWA, particularly to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which was set up to make it easier and more affordable to rollout networks.

Too often, though, operators have found themselves embroiled in long and costly legal battles with site providers to try to exercise their rights under the code.

According to Three, “A 60% reduction in site rentals over 10 years through ECC reform would fund the expansion of the Three 5G network by 20%, enabling us to reach even more people with 5G.”

The other is reforms of the Permitted Development Rights regime which, according to Three, limits its ability to build and upgrade the necessary infrastructure for 5G and better 4G connectivity.

David Hennessy, Chief Technology Officer, Three UK and Ireland says, “Gigabit speed internet is critical for the UK’s long-term prosperity. However, the government is too focused on investing in one type of technology - fixed line.

“Fixed line, or fibre, is significantly more difficult to roll out than FWA, which only needs a mobile signal to operate. It’s time for a greater consideration of a wider pool of technology, particularly FWA, to help those in rural areas have access to faster internet and ultimately help reduce the digital divide.”

According to Kester Mann, analyst, CCS Insight, “Although current broadband networks are sufficient for many of today’s needs, future demand for more data-intensive services will soon start to push their limits.The Government’s ambition to reach at least 85% of UK premises with gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 is an ambitious target.”

Mann warns that in order to meet those goals it will be necessary to remove barriers to network deployment, accelerate the build-out ambitions of UK providers and take an open approach to new connectivity solutions through a mix of technologies.

“5G fixed wireless access can form a significant part of this,” he says.

The benefits and costs associated with connecting rural and remote communities will depend on the connectivity technologies and specifications that are adopted concerning speed, capacity and latency. While 5G and fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) are able to deliver high performance in those terms, the low population density and unfavourable topography that are often part and parcel of rural communities mean that a greater quantity of equipment will be required in order to deliver the benefits to users, and this makes the trade-off between the benefits and costs of network rollout more acute in rural areas.

So while FWA, as proposed by Three, could certainly lower deployment costs relative to FTTP with savings of up to 40%, according to some industry analysts, while it increases coverage its use will reduce both the capacities and speeds that can be offered.

A question of economics

The challenge of providing connectivity to rural and isolated communities comes down to simple economics, according to Marc Overton, Chief Solutions Officer & Senior VP-EMEA Sales at Sierra Wireless, “People want connectivity, resilience and data through-put and 5G will enable people to get rid of their broadband connection, but at the moment the industry is being driven purely by economic considerations.

“The investment is going into densely populated areas and that translates into a relatively small geography. With 5G we’re seeing the rearchitecting of the network and densification, but that’s no different to 3G or 4G.”

“As a consequence, we are seeing a focus on 5G industrial use cases, the development of private networks, as operators chase higher-value scenarios connecting machines and industries,” says Overton.

According to Overton, agriculture is one sector where standard satellite operators could assist with improving rural coverage by combining cellular and satellite propositions to deliver improved and continuous connectivity.

Several low-orbit satellite operators are rescaling their operations to support wireless and make services easier to access, Overton suggests.

If we are to improve rural communications, we will need to see greater use of public-private partnerships, the simplification of the permit application process, and infrastructure sharing agreements that ensure spectrum licensing and allocation mechanisms deliver a more efficient spectrum allocation.

These kinds of initiatives are going to be critical in overcoming the financial and business barriers that seem to be preventing the wider adoption of digital technologies and which continue to reinforce the digital divide between rural and urban communities.