Closing the digital divide more rapidly and effectively

abstract image of the digital divide

Digital connectivity has ingrained itself into our daily life and is now as crucial to businesses and communities as any other utility. That’s why we must begin to close the digital divide

Access to high-speed and reliable broadband brings a host of advantages. Well-connected communities enjoy improved educational, professional and personal outcomes and see higher economic growth and social well-being levels. In stark contrast, rural areas stuck in the digital slow lane are less attractive places to live, work and visit and risk being left behind as other areas reap the benefits of our digital revolution.

The UK has correctly set itself the goal of building a world-class digital infrastructure, but the task of connecting the UK is far from finished. There remains a clear gap between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, with Ofcom reporting that over 500,000 properties still have no access to a ‘decent’ fixed line broadband service of 10Mbps or more. This lack of connectivity is far more prevalent in rural areas, with well over half of the properties without access to decent broadband being rurally located.

As communications technology becomes increasingly essential to the success of modern society, it is vital that central government and regional and local authorities realise that full fibre cannot provide a universal answer in a timely and cost-effective manner. Alternative broadband solutions that can be deployed far more quickly and cost-effectively must also be considered.

What has been done to close the Digital Divide?

The Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has been a priority since 2019, including improving broadband connectivity for all. However, although showing commendable ambition, the Government has had to row back on initial targets of delivering gigabit- capable broadband to all UK properties by 2025. Latest objectives are for 85% of UK properties to be gigabit-capable by 2025, with an aim to get ‘as close to as possible’ to 100% by 2030.

To reach these goals, the Government plans to invest £5bn into its Project Gigabit scheme – but it’s clear that for at least the next three years, 15% of UK properties will not benefit. Worse still, these homes and businesses tend to be the ones with the poorest current broadband speeds, so they are the ones most needing assistance. Yet there seems to be no plan to level up digital connectivity for this sizeable minority.

Why the Levelling Up Agenda is failing those most in need

The current government approach has inherent flaws preventing it from helping the most digitally deprived. Project Gigabit with its exclusively fibre-centric approach to digital connectivity inevitably encounters issues when trying to connect rural communities where the need is greatest.

Provisioning the infrastructure required to connect more remote properties with fibre broadband is cost-prohibitive and time-inefficient. Consequently, many projects commissioned under Project Gigabit target premises in more densely populated and easier-to-reach locations. Improving the connectivity of such already well-served areas is far quicker and more commercially attractive when compared to digitally enabling more remote communities. In contrast, funding is not targeted to help those harder-to-reach areas where improved connectivity is most needed. As a result, the current policy is in fact liable to increase digital inequality rather than lessen it.

There is another way: alternative broadband delivery technologies to connect the UK

Alternative broadband delivery solutions should be an essential part of the connectivity mix, since these can immediately benefit communities trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide. A prime example is 4G-delivered broadband, which is readily available and at a fraction of the cost of any fibre-based solution.

4G coverage is extensive, with 99% of the UK now being covered. And even locations with weaker signal strength can still benefit from 4G broadband by having an on-property outdoor 4G antenna installed. This enables the supply of high-performance and reliable broadband to the most remote areas – and on a ‘per single property’ basis – without the huge logistical and financial challenges that fibre-based solutions present. Leveraging alternative technology broadband would revolutionise the nation’s endeavours to close the digital divide faster and more comprehensively.

The benefits of implementing alternative broadband solutions

The transformative impact of high- speed broadband on individuals’ lives and the national economy cannot be underestimated, with a recent study indicating that investing in digital infrastructure could help grow the UK economy by £232bn by 2040. It is therefore vital that government at all levels becomes aware that alternative solutions to improve connectivity for those with the poorest fixed-line broadband already exist.

Broader thinking is required because existing policies leave too many ignored. As discussed, Project Gigabit is too focussed on the ‘easy bits’, whereas the safety net that was meant to be provided by the Universal Service Obligation (USO) is all too often not fit for purpose.

Take David Henthorne as one typical example. Rurally located near Buxton in the Peak District, for years David experienced fixed line broadband speeds of just 2 Mbps. He approached BT under the USO to get improved connectivity, only to be quoted an entirely unaffordable £40,000, with the work due to take many months. Fortunately, we at National Broadband were able to provide him with substantially faster 4G broadband within days and at a set-up cost of under £300.

Some regional authorities have realised the useful role that alternative broadband can play. The Welsh Assembly continues with its Access Broadband Cymru scheme, subsidising the set-up cost of alternate technology broadband connections for the most digitally deprived. The Scottish Parliament has a similar action in place with its SBVS and county councils such as Herefordshire and Devon & Somerset have put in place smaller alternative technology procurement schemes to bring much-improved broadband to some of their hardest-to- reach properties.

All UK regional authorities are well aware of so-called ‘white’ broadband areas falling under their remit and struggle with provisioning good quality connectivity to affected properties. What they need to understand is that effective solutions are available to procure immediately.

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