Saturday, 25 May 2019

Bridging the rural connectivity gap

By Chris Kelly, Total Telecom
Friday 03 May 19

Paul Doe, Regional Director, MLL Telecom, discusses LFFN Rural Connectivity

The latest wave of the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) challenge fund aims to address the issues surrounding improving connectivity in rural regions. Despite best efforts, rural areas throughout the UK today remain poorly connected. Indeed, the Daily Telegraph recently warned that a digital revolution could pass Britain’s rural regions by, and with some rural residents taking matters into their own hands (see the B4RN initiative), it’s clear that a lot of work still needs to be done to bridge the rural/urban divide.  Much is being done today to accelerate innovation in the UK, with government departments making money available for future technology development…

The latest wave of the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) challenge fund aims to address the issues surrounding improving connectivity in rural regions. Despite best efforts, rural areas throughout the UK today remain poorly connected. Indeed, the Daily Telegraph recently warned that a digital revolution could pass Britain’s rural regions by, and with some rural residents taking matters into their own hands (see the B4RN initiative), it’s clear that a lot of work still needs to be done to bridge the rural/urban divide. 

Much is being done today to accelerate innovation in the UK, with government departments making money available for future technology development, including 5G. At the heart of digital innovation is internet access, and more specifically, fibre. If rural communities cannot benefit from full-fibre internet speeds, they will struggle to thrive and grow. This in turn will affect employment opportunities and see public and private employers move away in a bid to join urban towns and cities. The result? A dying rural economy and community. 

 

Equality in connectivity 

Local authorities up and down the country are under huge pressures to transform outdated processes and operations, all while reducing expenditure. Budgets are becoming smaller, yet the needs and demands of citizens are growing. While this story is true of the entire nation, local authorities in rural areas of the country are under additional strain due to poor connectivity options. Recent research from Rural England, found that mobile calls cannot be made inside 33% of rural buildings on any network, compared to just 3% in urban premises. The same research also found that 58% of rural premises cannot access 4G services. In addition to this, Ofcom’s annual Connected Nation report revealed that in 2018, only 66% of the UK received coverage from all four mobile network operators. 

Ironically, previous investments made to address connectivity issues have always focused on the already well-served areas, while the ‘hard to connect’ areas have been largely ignored. As a result, those living within suburban belts have benefitted from the luxuries that come with remote and flexible working, while others in rural locations are forced to travel, sometimes for several hours, to reach their place of work. Connectivity simply cannot be a postcode lottery, and it is unfair to accept that rural residents are put at a social and economic disadvantage to their urban counterparts. If significant progress is to be made towards transforming the UK into a digital nation, the rural not-spots and connectivity gaps must be addressed, and fast.

 

The LFFN solution

The good news is that a solution exists. The LFFN challenge fund is forcing local public sector organisations to prioritise connectivity improvements. Wave 3 of the LFFN challenge fund is focused on stimulating commercial investment in full fibre availability, and has already seen a large part of the £95m allocation from the UK government awarded to selected local authorities. What if rural communities benefited from gigabit broadband speeds? What if connectivity was enhanced to a point where manual processes could be made available digitally for rural residents? What if rural residents no longer needed to travel to towns or cities to access employment opportunities? What if children could benefit from remote-learning tools? These questions can become reality thanks to the LFFN challenge fund, but obtaining funding is no easy feat. For public sector organisations entering the LFFN application process, a clear strategy must be in place to ensure they put in place the correct projects to meet their needs. 

 

Choosing the right partner

Making a success of upgrading and enhancing connectivity can take various forms. The LFFN programme offers four different delivery models that can assist in deploying full fibre services. One way is to adopt the anchor tenancy approach, whereby existing public sector sites act as local hubs to build or extend the current network. When it comes to enhancing fibre connectivity in rural areas, the most common challenge is cost. Laying fibre is an extremely expensive, and time consuming process – it requires a great deal of planning and involvement from a multitude of teams; network engineers, builders, transmission planners, etc. By leveraging an existing site, local authorities can significantly curb the cost of laying new fibre to new homes or businesses. 

This approach comes with a number of benefits, but also presents an opportunity for local authorities to do things differently when it comes to connectivity. Applying for LFFN funding will allow them to engage with new suppliers and build a solution, designed by them, for them and with their own needs in mind. Connectivity options shouldn’t look like ‘one stop shop’ solutions, and rural local authorities should embrace programmes such as LFFN to answer the connectivity needs of their residents. It is the choices made today that will help rural local authorities meet the digital demands of tomorrow. And ultimately, bridging the connectivity gap between urban and rural locations will help the UK meet its digital goals of the future.  

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