Rural broadband and digital-only services - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

5  Rural broadband policy


53. There is a general trend towards online services becoming the norm: this is true of the public sector (Government digital strategy) and the private sector (shopping, learning and banking all increasingly take place online). Nearly every council and Local Enterprise Partnership for growth emphasises the importance of superfast broadband and other digital infrastructure in attracting and retaining businesses of all sizes.[48] Councillor Tom Howard suggested that broadband was a core service requirement for rural living,[49] while the Local Government Association added that:

Access to fast and reliable broadband is as important a strategic consideration as electricity, planning, housing and transport for living and doing business in the twenty-first century.[50]

54. We have received written evidence about the increasing use of online-only access across a range of services. It has become apparent in the course of this inquiry that lack of broadband availability is not an issue only in remote, rural communities. Premises in developed, urban locations also experience poor coverage when the copper cables which connect their house to the street cabinet have to travel a long distance. Nonetheless problems with poor connectivity arise mainly in rural areas: Chris Townsend of BDUK noted that the last 5% of premises to receive access to superfast broadband represent 75% of the UK's geographical area. Even so, access to good broadband should not be thought of as an exclusively rural issue. Rural broadband policy should not be separated from the policy for urban areas: the same high speeds and increased coverage rates experienced in urban areas must be attempted in rural settings.

55. Sean Williams from BT highlighted the main problems faced when balancing delivery of urban broadband alongside rural:

You want to get as much value in connectivity for the money available, and so you get to the most expensive, hardest-to-reach places last. The most rural and dispersed farm communities are among the last to get the service.[51]


56. During the 2010-15 Spending Review Period a total of £530 million (including £300 million from TV licence revenue) has been allocated to broadband delivery. Funding for 2015-17 has not yet been allocated from central Government but the licence fee settlement (agreed in 2010) provides a further £150 million for BDUK funding in each of 2015-16 and 2016-17, if required.[52] Some £100 million of funding was set aside for the Urban Broadband Fund, and £20 million for the Rural Community Broadband Fund, which, until it closed down in March 2014, was a fund to help 'hard to reach' communities.[53]

57. The Government's 'Broadband Connection Vouchers Scheme' offers businesses an opportunity to obtain a connection voucher worth up to £3,000 for faster, better broadband. This scheme is active in 22 cities across the UK. In the Autumn Statement 2014, the Government provided an extra £40 million for its broadband connection voucher scheme, and the scheme has been extended to March 2016 and more cities.

58. The allocation of funding between urban and rural areas is greatly unbalanced. Those who live in urban areas have on average higher percentage coverage of superfast broadband, coupled with access to voucher schemes which can subsidise access. Rural areas are lagging behind. Those in poorly connected areas are sometimes asked to pay twice: once through their taxes for the Government-funded Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme and potentially again from their own pockets if the BDUK programme does not reach them.

59. We recommend the introduction of a voucher scheme, similar to that available in cities, for those who live in areas with no access to fixed-line broadband or where they are unable to access a minimum of 2 Mbps broadband. The vouchers should subsidise the cost of satellite broadband access for those eligible.

Innovation fund

60. On 21 March 2014, the Government invited applicants for a new £10 million innovation fund, intended to test innovative ways to help take broadband to Britain's most remote communities. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced that suppliers could submit bids in three areas: technology; operating models; and financial (testing innovative funding models).[54] The Minister confirmed that the awards for pilots were made in June 2014 and that the pilot projects were now being finalised with the hope that results would be returned in 2015.[55] The Minister confirmed that Defra are in regular dialogue with DCMS on this project to help the last 5%.[56] Chris Townsend, of BDUK, said:

We will have a business case to take to the Secretary of State by the end of March (2015). We will also be looking for additional funds in order to rollout some of these further technologies into the harder to reach areas.[57]

61. It is not clear how the success of the pilots will be judged, or whether the results of the pilot tests will be made public. Neither is it clear whether more funds will be made available if the appropriate technologies are tested and ready for rollout. Chris Townsend assured us that the pilots have been selected and completed according to schedule and that they will be rolled out on a wider scale this year.

62. It is frustrating for those living in remote areas and those without access to adequate broadband coverage that it has taken nearly five years into the rollout of broadband before new technologies have been researched. Reassurance is required on how this 'Innovation Fund' will succeed where the Rural Community Broadband Fund did not. That fund received 110 applications for funding; only 22 were approved.

63. Fibre to the Cabinet does not offer a solution to all premises. Alternative technologies must be investigated and it is encouraging that the Government is now investing in this research. It is disappointing that research into solutions for hardest-to-reach areas has taken so long.

64. The Innovation Fund is the first step to providing superfast coverage to the last 5%. The results of the pilot test must be published and the most suitable schemes rolled out nationally.

48   Local Government Association (RBB 0090) para 3  Back

49   Councillor Tom Howard (RBB 0083) para 5  Back

50   Local Government Association (RBB 0090) para 1 Back

51   Q7 Back

52   Fixed Broadband: Policy and Speeds 2014, Standard note SN06643, House of Commons Library, December 2014  Back

53   Local Government Association (RBB 0090) para 13  Back

54   Department for Culture, Media & Sport '£10 million broadband fund' accessed 26 January 2015  Back

55   Q237  Back

56   Q237 Back

57   Q185 Back

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Prepared 3 February 2015