The expansion of full-fibre broadband connectivity throughout the UK is one of the industry's top priorities for the coming years. With the government pushing to get every property in the country within reach of gigabit services by 2025, this means a fast pace will be needed to meet this ambitious goal.
However, one key focus that will be essential if this target is to be met will be the need to improve provisions in rural areas.
Previous initiatives, such as the introduction of fibre-to-the-cabinet capabilities, often bypassed more remote areas, as the financial and technical challenges were frequently deemed to outweigh the benefits. This left much of the UK with a two-tier system, where more urban areas benefited from the latest speed while their rural counterparts missed out.
There has been a determined effort not to take the same approach this time around, however, with many suppliers, both large and small, paying particularly close attention to how they bring full-fibre to more remote areas.
Why rural broadband matters
The importance of rural broadband was highlighted in a recent paper from the EU, which offered a range of recommendations and best practices on how to achieve success, based on real-world experiences from around the bloc, as well as the UK.
It noted that strong digital connectivity is vital for ensuring the future of rural communities and allowing them to thrive just as much as urban areas. At a time when many such communities are experiencing issues such as ageing populations, fast broadband connectivity allows people to benefit from a range of remote technologies.
For example, it can provide access to telehealthcare and education, cutting down on what would otherwise be lengthy travel times to access vital services. It also makes homeworking a viable option for many, which can encourage more people to live and work in these regions, preventing 'brain drain' to urban areas and supporting the long-term future of rural communities.
Addressing the key technical challenges of rollouts
When it comes to closing the connectivity gap and ensuring ultrafast services are able to reach the most rural communities, there are a number of issues to be overcome, both in terms of the physical challenges of deployment, as well as wider socio-economic factors.
Low population densities, for example, mean that many of the economies of scale that enable large investments in new technology are reduced. Meanwhile, people in rural areas typically have lower incomes per capita than urban areas, which can affect their willingness and ability to pay for more advanced services.
On top of this, rural areas often face more challenging terrain, from uneven and rocky ground to, at the other extreme, sandy ground, all of which can make deploying fibre cabling more difficult and expensive.
So how can these issues be overcome? The EU's handbook noted that one way of reducing the impact of terrain issues is to reuse existing infrastructure deployments. For example, it highlighted efforts in Spain that use water mains for optical fibre, deploying a small, flexible, high-density polyethylene duct within this infrastructure, allowing any resident with access to the municipal water network to also access this fibre network.
This isn't always possible, however. For instance, in Scotland, the Balquhidder Community Broadband project was unable to take advantage of the existing network of poles and conduits due to the onerous conditions required by the infrastructure owners.
However, a community effort saw the laying of around 44 km of new fibre across uneven and rocky terrain, where poor weather conditions also hampered efforts. Yet by mobilising the community - including one instance where 30 volunteers worked together to pull 3km of pre-blown fibre across a gorge - the challenges were overcome, so that as of March 2020, 93 per cent of properties had been connected to 1Gbps fibre-to-the-premises.
In this case, best practices highlighted by the handbook included deep involvement of inhabitants in the scheme, investing in local projects and stimulating demand for high-speed connectivity in the area.
Getting communities involved
This close cooperation with the community is vital at every stage of the process, from getting projects funded to encouraging take-up once faster services are available. Another example of how this can be achieved is the work of Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), which was set up as a local volunteer group in Lancashire in 2011. In its first four years, it connected over 1,000 properties to 1Gbps FTTH, which is offered to residents for around £30 a month - on par with mainstream alternatives.
The project's funding comes almost entirely from local investors in the form of shares and loans. However, the EU handbook noted that B4RN highlights how "even the most self-sustaining private initiative needs to interface with the local public bodies" in order to be successful.
Because it only builds in areas where it has been invited, it requires clear expressions of interest before deploying new fibre, as well as financial commitments from local stakeholders to cover the costs of the work and materials needed for the rollout.
Getting closely involved with communities is therefore vital in ensuring the success of rural broadband rollouts. This is vital in gauging demand and promoting the benefits of such services to local people, in order to ensure uptake levels will be enough to justify any investment.