Is 4G the answer to rural broadband blackspots?

by , Deputy Technology Editor Technology 21 March 2013
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EE is soon to roll out ’up to 20Mbps’ broadband over 100 square miles of the Cumbrian Northern Fells – an area previously untouched by decent broadband. Is 4G the answer to Britain’s broadband blackspots?

Man using laptop in field

Well, that’s the plan. When Ofcom announced its 4G spectrum auction, where providers like EE, O2 and Vodafone bid for slices of the invisible wireless spectrum pie, it set a target to ensure most of the UK can use 4G for indoor broadband in a few years time. Why? Because it hopes 4G is the solid gold answer to getting decent broadband to parts of the UK where even BBC iPlayer is a challenge.

But, while I believe 4G makes a very strong case for being the answer to rural broadband issues, it’s far from a done deal.

Will it be good value?

My first concern is about value. EE says the initial price will be £15.99 for typical speeds of 8-12Mbps and a maximum of 20Mbps. So far, so reasonable. But how much data will £15.99 get the good people in the Northern Fells?

EE has confirmed to me that £15.99 equates to 3GB per month. Add another £10 (£25.99) and you can get 8GB – a decent amount for a single-user tablet, but not much use for a family of four, each of whom wants to devour online video at a rate of knots. EE will monitor usage to create new plans, but there’s no guarantee than these will be better value.

EE could be more generous with its rural broadband plans – we just don’t know yet. But, for comparison, BT offers totally unlimited ‘up to 16Mbps’ broadband for £31.75 including line rental. Faster speeds are great, but without decent data limits they’re handicapped.

Will 4G networks keep up in the speed race?

My other concern is simply the speed of development.

Wireless internet technology is incredible – countries with more advanced networks can hit speeds in the region of 40Mbps or more. However, reaching those heights requires investment; something the UK isn’t renowned for doing in a timely manner.

EE’s speeds in the Northern Fells are a clear step in the right direction, but when built-up areas begin to scale the heights of 100Mbps or more, 12Mbps will quickly feel rather slow again.

Just a note of caution. As I said earlier, I think 4G makes a good case for being an answer to rural broadband and EE should be applauded for taking the initiative. However, until questions like the above are answered, we can’t be certain it’s the answer we want.

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wavechange

I have a friend who is a farmer and he uses a dial-up service because broadband is not available. He struggles with attachments, which is a big problem because he serves on several committees. He might welcome this service – providing he lives within range of a mobile transmitter of course.

Having access to broadband is extremely useful but it is possible to live without a large data allowance. If that’s how you want to spend your money, fair enough. Within a few years the price is likely to fall.

You’re totally right, large data allowances aren’t essential for lots of people, but my main point is 4G is unlikely to keep pace with evolution elsewhere in the network. Unless someone puts their hands in their pockets, it’s inconceivable that rural areas will get a fair deal on access. I’m certain it’s an issue that will only grow in important as more services, and more of the economy, is driven by online access and commerce.

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svendhhh

You don’t even have to go to anywhere rural and remote to struggle to get decent broadband. I lived for several years in Orchard Park, a new development in Cambridge, and we were never able to get a decent broadband connection. And like it says in the article, even the iPlayer was a struggle. We did consider mobile broadband as an alternative, but there didn’t seem to be a good, reliable solution at the time. I definitely think fast mobile broadband will be a great solution for places with poor wired connections, and maybe even replace wired broadband completely, if they’re already at 20Mb. Though “up to 20Mb” could mean anything from 156kb to 19.9Mb ;)

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Richard

Mobile data coverage on 3G is pretty patchy and the telcos have have years to get that right; I don’t hold out much hope that 4G will be any better.

True, but it’s down to Ofcom to enforce the requirement it put into the 4G bidding process. I’ve forgotten the precise number, but it’s over 90% of indoor coverage by 2017, I believe.

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Alan B

I believe the coverage requirement applies to 90% of the population so, with the concentration of population in large urban areas, it’s still likely to leave huge rural areas without decent mobile phone signals, let alone fast broadband.

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Hugo

It’s a hard call; we know that the telcos don’t have the backbone capacity to let everyone veraciously use the full bandwidth their devices are capable of, but they want to advertise these “up to” speeds for marketing. I assume there’s a technical reason that they can’t offer lower speeds and a higher cap, but that would seem to me to be the best interim solution as they build out capacity.

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John

Would be so nice to have 3G in our town (Alcester)!

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Eyelid

People in rural areas can get a useful service by installing satellite broadband. I have I think 8Mbps — which may not set things on fire but it’s adequate for this farmer’s needs plus a few hours or so of iPlayer, and that’s for £40 a month. It’s not cheap but it’s reliable and worth it if there’s nothing else except farcically unreliable landline broadband at 0.5 mbps. There’s no 3G here so 4G’s probably just fantasy. But roll on EE, by ‘Eck!

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Royk

The point of the EE 4G offer in the Northern Fells is that it will deliver improved Internet speed above that which we get now. It is all very well for you to point out that BT offer unlimited downloads at up to 16 Mbps, but here in the Northern Fells we simply cannot get that kind of speed – and BT currently do not address that here.

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