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Digital exclusion a 'major' disadvantage to farmers and other rural businesses

Friday, December 5th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

The body representing landowners in rural England and Wales has hit out at slow broadband speeds and a lack of coverage that is leaving farmers and businesses at a disadvantage.

The Country Landowners Association (CLA) repeated its call for minimum fixed broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps, and a drive to help the final 5% of rural areas get online, in evidence to a Commons select committee inquiry into rural broadband.

The CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, was one of the bodies to give evidence at the inquiry by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee this week.

Its president Henry Robinson and senior business and economics advisor Dr Charles Trotman told MPs that rural areas were being disadvantaged by a lack of connectivity, and said the committee should recommend a Universal Service Obligation including fixed-line broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk after the session, Dr Trotman said: “Obviously what we want to see and what we’ve been calling for for a number of years is universal coverage at speeds where we don’t have these problems.

“The government can come up with all sorts of fancy words and say we’re going to hit objectives left, right, and centre but until we see the practical evidence of this happening it’s a major disadvantage to farmers and rural businesses.

“We get comments and questions and concerns from our members on a weekly basis that they can’t get broadband.”

The CLA is also concerned that a lack of connectivity for some members will become even more damaging as digital-only access for payments to farmers by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is rolled out, with fears that slow speeds will struggle to cope with the online applications.

Dr Trotman told the committee that rural areas need a variety of technologies to bring broadband to the hardest-to-reach areas.

He said: “To get to the really hard to reach areas we believe there should be a patchwork quilt of technologies.

“But it’s not available as things are, and it should be. It will be extremely unlikely that it will be available by May 15, 2015 (the deadline for applications).”

'It's not just about satellite, copper and fibre'

During the select committee session, BT’s group director of strategy, policy and portfolio Sean Williams said that 98.5% of premises would have broadband speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2016 but there would be a small number that do not.

He said it is possible for everyone to get broadband through solutions such as satellite broadband, while other innovations would bring higher speeds to the existing copper networks.

“It’s not just about satellite, copper and fibre,” he told the committee.

“Wireless broadband and mobile broadband are still being rolled out. As 4G mobile networks are deployed we will see these being used as well for wireless connections.

“But again, a lot of this is going to play out over the next two or three years.”

Mr Williams said 98.5% was “extremely good performance”, adding: “Nobody has to go without the basic at least 2Mbps. Already the European commissioner has declared that mission accomplished.”

He said they were finding solutions on a “street by street basis” and are keen to provide opportunities to sort out every community and every premises.

Asked if the aim of delivering superfast broadband of speeds up to 24Mbps to 95% of people is achievable by 2017, he said: “We think it’s there or thereabouts, it may end up being in 2018. The UK fibre deployment is the largest and fastest in any country in the developed world.”

He added: “The targets are realistic so when I tell you 90% get superfast at the end of 2016, they will all get 24Mbps, at least if they want it. There will also be hundreds of thousands of premises that will get a speed improvement but don’t get to the 24Mbps.”

Mr Williams admitted that on long lines, premises more than 2km from a cabinet would struggle to achieve the 24Mbps.

Asked about hopes for a final 5% to get to 24Mbps, he said: “To the ones where we have already deployed a fibre cabinet who are not getting the full benefit of the 24Mbps speed there are still lots of technological advantages to come.

“There are new technologies coming on stream such as G.Fast which can demonstrate 800Mbps broadband on a copper connection, if a line isn’t too long.”

Mr Williams told the committee that 80Mbps, which can be delivered from its current fibre to the cabinet solution, is “ample” for today’s requirements and those of the foreseeable future.

He said adopting a fibre to the premises (FTTP) rollout would require five times as much money and take five times as long.

“We don’t see any need or case in the foreseeable future for a solution that sees fibre to the premises (FTTP) everywhere.

“There are much better lower cost solutions to get faster speeds. We don’t think the FTTP solution is the right answer.

“Our objective is to get every premises to the level that it can get at least 2Mbps, hopefully a lot more.

“There may be 1.5% of premises, less than half a million, that won’t get 2Mbps through the current plans. And for them we are continuing to explore other ways to improve speed.”

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