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

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  We have been keen throughout this inquiry to make sure that enough focus is placed on those who have no access to superfast broadband. There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the 5% of premises who have none. There is a risk of poor rural broadband availability causing harm to farm businesses and the rural economy. It is essential that those who are 'hardest-to-reach' are given priority. (Paragraph 7)

Broadband availability

2.  Repeated changes in target dates for rollout of superfast broadband inevitably reduce confidence that coverage will be achieved on time. They also leave those in the hardest-to-reach areas uncertain as to when their businesses will be able fully to engage with digital practices. Beyond business purposes, householders, particularly in rural communities, are being left behind in accessing online services that most of the country can take for granted. Activities as diverse as children's homework, online tax returns, and simply watching television now depend significantly on good online access. (Paragraph 13)

3.  We were concerned to hear BT tell us that the present target of 95% of premises receiving superfast broadband by 2017 may slip. Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) must make it clear that the target date must be met. A target date for when the last 5% of premises will obtain access to superfast broadband coverage must be published. (Paragraph 14)

4.  For many services, 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) is already an outdated figure, and 10 Mbps is increasingly recommended as a suitable USC for standard provision. The Government must reassess whether the 2 Mbps Universal Service Commitment remains a valid one. (Paragraph 20)

5.  Millions of pounds are being invested in the rollout of superfast broadband at 24 Megabits per second. Within three years of the expected delivery date, however, that speed will no longer be considered 'superfast' by European standards. (Paragraph 22)

6.  Councils need access to timely data from BT that allows them accurately to monitor take-up of broadband. Equally, they need access to timely data from BT about planned broadband coverage and speed. It has been argued that distributing information about broadband coverage on a postcode by postcode basis can be misleading. An 'enabled' postcode does not necessarily mean that each premise within the postcode is enabled. (Paragraph 25)

7.  We are surprised that no assessment of the first phase of contracts with BT has been published before the phase two and three contracts are signed. Phase two contracts being signed must include provisions to ensure that local councils and BT keep local communities up-to-date with planned broadband coverage and speed. Information about rollout should be delivered on a premise-by-premise basis as opposed to by postcode. (Paragraph 26)

Broadband delivery

8.  Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) is an efficient, cost-effective method of improving broadband in areas where premises are located close to their local street cabinet. However, this 'one-size-fits-all' approach to broadband delivery does not take into account the varied topography across the 44 local areas receiving broadband upgrade. FTTC allows those within a short distance of a local cabinet to experience the benefit of an upgrade to superfast broadband but can leave those already a long distance from the cabinet, and therefore experiencing slower broadband, with limited or no material change in service. (Paragraph 31)

9.  Satellite technology provides a potential alternative to those in remote areas where fixed-line delivery of broadband is impracticable or can achieve only very low speeds. However, it will not fill all the gaps. Satellite technology is not widely developed on a commercial scale in the UK and the technology itself can suffer from delay and reliability issues. (Paragraph 35)

10.  The fact that Fibre to the Cabinet is not a suitable solution in every circumstance or every community means that alternative solutions, such as wider satellite coverage or Fibre to the Remote Node, are necessary. Alternative solutions are required not only to ensure that the current commitments of basic and superfast broadband are met but also to ensure that the infrastructure being deployed is future proof and able to meet demands for increasing broadband speeds. (Paragraph 38)

Digital-only services

11.  The Rural Payments Agency have taken a number of important steps to ensure that those with poor broadband speeds can access its new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) application software. It deserves credit for seeking to ensure a 'soft landing' for the new system, but, given the difficulties experience last time round, and in particular given the variable state of broadband access in rural areas, judgment must be reserved on the effectiveness of its preparations until they have been tested in action. (Paragraph 44)

12.  The RPA must have a contingency plan in case the new online-only CAP application system proves difficult to use for farmers with limited broadband capability. The new software has not yet been tested by the number of users who will access the site in May, and some of those doing so will be using online services for the first time. The contingency plan should be able to respond to the software not functioning at the level required or with users not being able effectively to access the software. (Paragraph 45)

13.  We recommend that the level of privacy in Digital Support Centres for those making CAP applications should be comparable to that in a bank. (Paragraph 49)

14.  Support to access online-only systems must be available not only in the first few months of the CAP application, but also in subsequent months and years, allowing sufficient time for planning training needs and bearing in mind the farming calendar. (Paragraph 52)

Rural broadband policy

15.  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. (Paragraph 58)

16.  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. (Paragraph 59)

17.  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. (Paragraph 63)

18.  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. (Paragraph 64)

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Prepared 3 February 2015