May 26th 2017

Let them eat broadband!

Remember the hassle of surfing the web in the ‘90s? Broadband has come on leaps and bounds since the days of dial-up access, which meant yelling at your kids to get off the phone so you could check your emails.

We have burst through generations of mobile network technologies too, with the 5G finish line now in sight. But alas, when 4G arrived in the big cities of Chicago, London and Shanghai, rural areas like Normal, IL, Abererch, and Fenghuang didn’t see the same kind of attention. Or even an ‘IOU’ from the big telcos.

This disparity in mobile connectivity or home internet speed is quite common, and occurs for a number of reasons. Some areas in even the most populous cities have historic districts or other similarly problematic areas where fibre installations are difficult, costly or illegal. These ‘not spots’ may see little-to-no home or mobile broadband due to poor nearby telco infrastructure.

On the other end of the spectrum, rural regions with small, sparse populations see a similar issue. Deploying costly fibre cabling in these regions doesn’t deliver a big enough payout for service providers. They’re only given attention when demand for new standards is high enough, and the expense of yesterday’s technology is low enough. The rural world is forced to wait for the price to drop and government to come to its rescue, and even then the quality of broadband is often subpar.

One model rural area trying it’s damnedest to get with the times is Gloucestershire in the UK. This county is projecting population growth rates in its cities of over 20% in just 20 years. Since 2014 Gloucester has also had the second highest increase in housing stock growth of any UK city. Only now, however, are residents seeing action from service providers to increase broadband speeds.

Fastershire, a joint effort by the government and private sectors to update the county, is offering speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2019, around the same time that providers are predicting 5G deals will hit the shelves at Carphone Warehouse. While this is progress, it still remains below the 10Mbps benchmark that Ofcom deems the “minimum…for a typical household.”

Only two years, Gloucestershire, until you can stream like a Londoner at the turn of the Millennium…

Knowing this, I believe the onus should not be placed on the providers. While they should be meeting the needs of the UK as a whole and providing what most deem a human right these days, ultimately these are still businesses, which must stay afloat. If the technology to deliver cheap, high-speed internet were available, I’m sure we would be seeing far more deployments.

This technology does exist though. While not ‘mainstream’ yet, technology like fixed wireless and small cells are becoming cheaper, more effective and more easily adapted to otherwise inconvenient locales. Providers that commit their resources to partnering with specialist third-parties in these fields or R&D funding to develop new technologies will ultimately see the payout.

It is my hope that the demand for technology that helps to progress disconnected areas increases over coming years, whether that stems from political action or consumer demand. With an election inbound in the UK though, we may see changes to minimum broadband standards very soon, and hopefully effective technologies like fixed wireless or cheaper fibre solutions will help to clear up both rural and urban not-spots. The countryside’s internet needs may never be a top priority for the powers-that-be. Let’s hope that we will soon be able to make the necessary broadband improvements to close this substantial digital divide.