What is happening with rural broadband in the UK

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A voucher scheme furthers the reach of real broadband Internet at current specification in to rural United Kingdom

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Alternative UK Fibre ISPs Support Common Wholesale Platform Idea | ISPReview

My Comments

The UK is still pushing on with the idea of providing gigabit-class broadband in to its rural areas in a few different ways. It is becoming very real as COVID-19 validated the concept of working from home and has made the idea of “tree-changes” to rural areas more appealing.

Government assistance being provided

At the moment, the government is providing national-level financial help to these rural communities, especially those that are relatively distant. This is in the from of subsidising connections to current-specification gigabit broadband Internet through the implementation of a voucher scheme. It is also being supported by local-government funding in some areas thus making these efforts more affordable. The driver will be to have the Internet connection future-proofed to suit newer connection needs.

Here, it’s about subsidising costs associated with activity necessary to bring broadband out to distant areas like digging long trenches to lay fibre-optic cabling. This is something that most commercial operators would find difficult to cover out of their budgets alone.

Of course a lot of this effort is being driven by a number of independent broadband networks who are laying down their own infrastructure in to these areas. Some of these efforts like Gigaclear are ordinary businesses while some like B4RN are co-operatives that have local help towards laying down infrastructure through the rural areas. It is seen as a way to sidestep the likes of Openreach who may see the rural market as being less profitable to have to current specification.

Wholesale broadband market for independent infrastructure providers

The UK market is gaining an increasing number of independent broadband Internet infrastructure providers who are courting particular geographical areas, be it large cities or rural areas. Examples of these include Gigaclear and B4RN serving rural communities, through Zzoom who serve large towns and suburbs, to Hyperoptic and Cityfibre who serve large cities. Most of them offer very-high-bandwidth service using fibre-optic technology, usually fibre-to-the-premises and offer this service on a retail footing.

Another factor that is being considered is to give independent network infrastructure operators access to the wholesale broadband trading market. This is so they can allow retail Internet service providers to buy bandwidth on their networks to sell to end-users, which is part of a lively competitive Internet-service market.

The main issue that plagues independent network infrastructure providers is the fact they can only sell wholesale access to retail ISPs directly. That makes it hard for a retail ISP or telco to buy bandwidth on multiple infrastructure providers serving many communities and they would have to deal one-to-one with each infrastructure provider. It may appeal to a speciality ISP who provides bespoke Internet services to particular user groups but wouldn’t satisfy ISPs targeting the mass market.

It makes it also confusing to end-users who want to take advantage of a particular technology offered by one or more of these providers but want to be sure of what is offered on their platform and by whom. This includes knowing who will offer their Internet service and at what prices. As well, there is the difficulty associated with admitting competing providers to these networks to permit a highly-vibrant broadband market using these technologies.

The UK’s independent infrastructure providers are working towards a wholesale-broadband market that simplifies the processes required of retail ISPs to buy wholesale bandwidth (and operating rights) in multiple communities.  The ability to easily sell bandwidth wholesale may make it more economically feasible for independent infrastructure providers to build out in to more areas due to tbem being able to sell more of the bandwidth and recoup infrastructure costs quickly.

Here, these infrastructure providers offer the bandwidth to ISPs in an aggregate approach. As well, there will be mechanisms that will exist to facilitate the switching of a connection between ISPs who use the same infrastructure. The

I also see this facilitating the ability for retail ISPs to provide single-pipe triple-play services to residential customers using the independent infrastructure providers. This means that customers could benefit from packages that have landline telephony, multichannel pay-TV and broadband “hot and cold running” Internet through the same connection on the same account. It would mean that moving to that large AGA-stove-equipped farmhouse won’t have you forego the cost-savings associated with these packages when you want landline telephony, pay TV and an Internet connection at the farmhouse.

A question that can easily arise is the possibility for a retail ISP to offer its services on multiple infrastructure providers that serve the same geographic area. In the UK, it could be an independently-operated fibre-to-the-premises network or it could be Openreach’s infrastructure for example.

This may be of benefit with providing all levels of service within a neighbourhood even if different providers offer differently-capable infrastructure to that neighbourbood. Or it can be about assuring service competition when there are exclusionary agreements regarding access to a premises for supplying network infrastructure.

Conclusion

Britain is still keeping its foot on the accelerator regarding the availability of current-specification. Here, it will have to be about public subsidies for reaching hard-to-reach rural areas along with measures to assure competitive Internet service to current specifications.

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