Box 1: Summary of key terms
Megabits (Mb) is a unit used for expressing a quantity or amount of data. Broadband speeds are expressed as an amount of data downloaded per second, usually in megabits per second (Mbps).
Decent broadband is defined by Ofcom as a connection capable of delivering a download speed of at least 10Mbps and an upload speed of at least 1Mbps. This the specification for the Government’s Universal Service Obligation (see Chapter 4).
Superfast broadband does not have a single definition. The UK Government defines it as speeds greater than 24Mbps, whereas Ofcom, the European Commission, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments define it as speeds greater than 30Mbps.
Gigabit-capable connection is defined by the UK government as a connection that can support 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) download or upload speeds. 1 Gbps is equal to 1000 Mbps. Gigabit speeds can be delivered by “full-fibre” infrastructure. (See Chapter 4).
Mobile data services are typically delivered over a wide range of radio frequency spectrum bands (see Chapter 5). The G stands for the different generations of technology used.
3G was launched in 2003 and introduced download speeds of over 5 Mbps.
4G was launched in 2012 and delivered speeds of over 10 Mbps.
5G is expected to deliver much faster data speeds (10–20 Gbps), higher capacity (i.e. able to work across more devices) and lower latency (faster response times).
Source: House of Commons Library and Ofcom
5.Ofcom, the independent regulator responsible for the UK communications industries (including broadband providers and mobile network operators), reports on the percentage of UK premises (homes and businesses) with access to fixed broadband connections of different speeds in its annual Connected Nations reports. According to Ofcom’s most recent figures (Spring 2019) 98.2 per cent of the UK has access to at least a decent broadband connection (see Figure 1). This is an increase from 96.6 per cent in May 2017 (see Figure 2). However, national average figures mask significant local disparities, which can be seen when coverage is examined at a more local or constituency level (see Annex).
Figure 1: Fixed broadband coverage: January 2019
Figure 2: Improvement in availability of decent broadband (10Mbps)
6.Ofcom assesses coverage of mobile signal in three main ways: outdoor coverage, indoor coverage and coverage on A and B roads. Currently 92 per cent of the UK landmass is covered by at least one operator, with 67 per cent covered by all four (see Figure 3). Nationally there has been an improvement in overall mobile coverage; for example, the percentage of premises with indoor 4G coverage from all operators has increased from 64 per cent in June 2017 to 78 per cent in January 2019 (see Figure 4). Again however national figures can mask disparities between urban and rural areas when examined at a more granular level (see Annex).
Figure 3: Mobile coverage of UK landmass
Figure 4: Improvement in mobile coverage since 2017
7.As the coverage figures show, despite improvements since our predecessor Committee’s inquiry, an urban rural divide still exists for both broadband and mobile coverage (see Figures 5 and 6). Broadly, although broadband and mobile coverage has improved in rural areas, it has done little better than keep pace with the improving service provision in urban areas, meaning a gap has persisted.
Figure 5: The urban-rural divide for broadband coverage (Spring 2019)
Figure 6: The urban-rural divide for 4G mobile coverage (Spring 2019)
8.Mark Bridgeman, Vice President of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) summarised that since our predecessor’s last report there had been “huge progress” in the roll out of broadband; but that there was still a “rural-urban gap” with only 1 per cent of people in urban areas not having access to “basic” 10Mbps broadband versus 12 per cent in rural areas. He also stressed the importance of mobile technology for solving the issue of connectivity to the “final few” without access to decent broadband. Graham Biggs, CEO of the Rural Services Network (RSN) suggested that “for those for whom [broadband coverage] has improved, it has improved significantly” but “for the rest, the gap between their experience and even the others in rural areas, let alone those in more urban areas, has actually got wider.” Jeremy Leggett, Rural Policy Adviser, Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) agreed, but further warned that the urban rural digital divide could increase if gigabit-capable infrastructure was not developed at the same pace or faster compared to urban areas, potentially creating a “two-speed economy and two-speed societies”.
9.National broadband coverage statistics measure access to a service as opposed to take up. They also do not account for the quality of the service received, especially that many consumers perceive that they do not get the download speeds that they have been advertised. This difference goes some way to explaining poor consumer experience: for example, research undertaken by Rural England CIC and Scotland’s Rural College in March 2018, commissioned by Amazon, noted that 37 per cent of respondents rated their internet connection speed as very poor or poor, and 25 per cent rated reliability as a significant concern.
10.Traditionally, operators used to advertise “up to” speeds, a maximum possible speed that might only be available to a small number of consumers. Lindsey Fussell, Group Director, Ofcom, stated that Ofcom had done a lot of work with the Advertising Standards Authority to change this, and explained that operators are no longer able to advertise “up to” speeds but had to provide average speeds available at peak times to at least 50 per cent. She further explained that Ofcom now required operators to quote consumers a range that reflects the speed consumers should see at peak times, noting that this “should pick up those people who are on long copper lines”, such as many premises in rural areas. However, she acknowledged that for consumers at the end of particularly long copper lines, or with almost no connectivity at all, that this measure would “not relieve [their] frustration”. Ofcom also conducts sample research, which includes placing devices inside consumers’ homes to try to measure the actual speed people get, to “sense check” the speeds that operators report. She stated this sample research was conducted in rural as well as urban areas.
11.For mobile data services, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), “country-wide coverage figures tend to mask the deep disparity between coverage in urban and rural areas” and “Ofcom’s latest figures reveal only 62 per cent of rural geographic landmass can receive a 4G signal from all operators, compared to 97 per cent of urban areas.” Furthermore, local councils found Mobile Network Operators’ (MNOs) coverage data did not reflect consumers’ experience, and that councils were increasingly conducting their own independent coverage analyses and finding different results. The Rural Services Network explained that two particular issues experienced with mobile provision in rural areas were weak signal strength indoors and network coverage in the open countryside. The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) broadband and mobile survey 2018 supported this, showing that “only 19% reported that they could receive a reliable mobile phone signal in all indoor locations on farm and only 17% had a reliable service for outdoor locations on farm”; and that these figures had changed little since 2015. Conversely, Mobile UK, representing the four MNOs, commented that since our predecessor’s 2015 inquiry, “enormous strides” had been made; in 2015 only 8 per cent of the UK’s landmass had any 4G coverage whereas now only 8 per cent does not.
12.The frustration from rural communities over connectivity and the urban-rural digital divide has increased at a time when people have become increasingly reliant on good broadband and mobile connections. According to Ofcom’s Connected Nations Report 2018, “people’s expectations of communications services continue to grow”. Data traffic over fixed broadband networks is increasing considerably year on year; Ofcom stated that in 2018 people used an average of 240GB a month on a fixed connection, approximately the equivalent of downloading 160 films, a growth of 26 per cent from the previous year. Given improvements in mobile data services, people also spent an average of two and a half hours a week online when they were not at home or work. These trends are expected to increase as companies invest in new technologies such as full-fibre and 5G.
13.Margot James MP, the then Digital Minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), suggested that the Government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) published in 2018 demonstrated its desire to ensure the divide between rural and urban areas was “not exacerbated”. She accepted that rural areas had not been prioritised in the rollout of superfast broadband between 2015 and 2018, and explained that recent programmes, such as the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme, aimed to “compensate” for this. Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the Rural Affairs Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), acknowledged that there was still an urban rural “divide”, as well as differing levels of connection within rural villages themselves. He noted that where villages were getting connected, and benefiting from further improvements, sparser areas such as farms and hamlets were not (see, for example, Figure 7). He explained that, whilst DCMS had the lead on national statistics, as the Government’s rural champion, he could not rest until all communities had “the contemporary life that both broadband and mobile coverage provide”.
Figure 7: Premises unable to receive decent broadband in England by urban rural classification
14.There are a number of different technological solutions to provide connectivity to rural areas. There is in addition a confusing array of overlapping definitions, for example the different definitions of speeds accessible to consumers. To minimise confusion, where possible the Government, Ofcom and the devolved administrations should align their definitions. For example, the Government should adopt the definition of superfast broadband as 30 Mbps.
15.Despite coverage improvements since our predecessor Committee’s inquiry in 2015, there are still clear disparities in broadband and mobile coverage between urban and rural areas, and between rural villages and sparser rural settlements. These divides are the cause of much frustration. The amount of data being used each year is increasing dramatically as people become gradually more reliant on good connection and fast speeds to engage in society. Poor coverage, exacerbated by the urban rural digital divide, is therefore increasingly impacting upon the quality of life in rural areas. This is worsened by the need to access services online; the Government going increasingly digital and rural agricultural payments requiring to be applied for online.
16.Further frustration is caused by the unreliability of broadband connections, especially where the actual speed experienced is slower than the maximum download speed advertised. We therefore support the work Ofcom has done with the Advertising Standards Agency to ensure advertised speeds accurately reflect the consumer experience. Ofcom should continue to refine how broadband speeds are measured and advertised to the consumer, so that consumers are fully aware of the speeds they can get. In response to this Report, Ofcom should update us on whether the changes they have made so far have improved the consumer experience, particularly in rural areas where there are still long copper wire connections.
17.Government acknowledges digital connectivity as a utility service. Rural communities therefore both need and deserve to have the same level of coverage as that experienced in urban areas, so they can run productive businesses and enjoy family life. The Government must continually invest in rural areas to reduce the disparities in digital connectivity between urban and rural areas, and between rural villages and sparser rural settlements. Previous interventions have, at best, kept the gap stable. The roll-out of new technologies such as full-fibre and 5G mobile data represent an opportunity for a step change, but also a risk that rural areas are left further behind. Therefore, in addition to national coverage targets, the Government should set specific targets for reducing the urban rural divide and put in place the investment to achieve them.
18.The impact of poor broadband and mobile coverage on rural businesses was one of the most commonly expressed concerns regarding the urban rural digital divide. The NFU noted the impact of digital infrastructure on business investment cases citing a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) figure that 82 per cent of firms said that the quality and reliability of the digital infrastructure were significant factors when they were deciding where to invest. Numerous district and county councils highlighted the impact upon businesses within their areas: Leicestershire County Council noted that between 2016 and 2017, rural areas of the county saw a modest 1.2 per cent rise in the number of new business, compared with a 10 per cent increase in urban parts of the county. It also stated that in Leicestershire alone, there were more than 3,600 rural business without adequate broadband. Derbyshire Dales District Council quoted an October 2018 survey of businesses in the district which found that 81 per cent of businesses thought that fast reliable broadband was “imperative or very important” and that 62 per cent experienced problems with speed and reliability (such as broadband dropping out during the day). Hambleton District Council warned that lack of broadband and mobile would lead to existing businesses relocating to towns and cities, with no new businesses being established in their place. The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) highlighted that rural areas had the highest numbers of home workers, which exacerbated the impact of poor connectivity. It argued that the continued increase in the number of home workers should have provided a “wake-up call” to Government for the need for improved broadband and other digital services.
19.Margot James MP told us that the challenges faced by rural businesses concerning connectivity were “unacceptable”. She sought to assure us that the Government was “doing everything we can, within the current constructs of public expenditure constraints and regulations, to motor on this, [to reduce] the number of businesses suffering”. Lord Gardiner pointed out that DEFRA’s Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) available funding for rural broadband projects had recently increased to £79 million, and that the primary purpose of this money was to fund faster speeds for businesses in the hardest to reach rural areas. However, the Government does not currently hold data on the number of businesses that have gone out of business or have had to relocate due to poor connectivity.
20.Rural businesses are suffering considerably due to poor digital connectivity. Whilst we welcome the Government’s commitment to fixing the problem, the fact it has not collected specific information regarding the number of affected businesses, and the wider cost to the rural economy, as a precursor to designing effective policy, calls into question the priority it places on it. The Government should further increase its available funding for rural broadband projects, for example through DEFRA’s Rural Development Programme for England. Allocation of funding to the devolved nations should be needs based rather than Barnett allocations; for example, Scotland requires coverage to be provided to the west coast islands as well as Orkney and Shetland in the north, providing additional remote rural challenges. There should be greater transparency on how the UK Government estimates costs for its broadband programme and allocates funding across the UK. The Government should also conduct research into the impact poor connectivity is having on businesses in the rural economy, and the wider impact this is having on the national economy to underpin the case for longer-term action.
5 Superfast broadband in the UK, , House of Commons Library, 13 November 2018; Mobile coverage in the UK, , House of Commons Library, 22 February 2019; Ofcom, (June 2015), last accessed 8 September 2019
6 For constituency level data see House of Commons Library, (June 2019), last accessed 29 July 2019
7 Table provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019
8 Table provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019
9 Ofcom, (May 2019), p 9, last accessed 30 August 2019
10 Table provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019
11 Table provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019
12 Chart provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019
13 Chart provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019
18 Amazon, (March 2018), p 27
23 Local Government Association (LGA) (), para 3.10
24 Local Government Association (LGA) (), para 3.11
25 Rural Services Network (), para 7
26 National Farmers’ Union (), p 2
27 Mobile UK (), para 12
28 Ofcom, (December 2018), p 2
29 Ofcom, (December 2018), p 2
30 Ofcom, (December 2018), p 2
31 Ofcom, (December 2018), p 2
33 . For summary of the delivery phases of the Government’s superfast broadband programme see Superfast broadband in the UK, , House of Commons Library, 13 November 2018, p 14
37 Table provided by the House of Commons Library using data from Ofcom, (May 2019), last accessed 30 August 2019; See Annex for similar breakdowns for UK nations (by rural/urban classifications)
38 National Farmers’ Union (), para 19
39 Leicestershire County Council (), para 2.1.7
40 Leicestershire County Council (), para 2.1.7
41 Derbyshire Dales District Council (), para 13
42 Hambleton District Council (), para 2
43 NALC (), para 14
44 NALC (), para 14
47 ; The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (), p 1
48 The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (), p 1
Published: 18 September 2019