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Rural broadband experts: 4G 'not an alternative to fixed broadband'

Monday, June 2nd 2014 by Hannah Langston

Rural broadband activists have welcomed the rollout of 4G mobile broadband to remote areas, but warn it should not be seen as a replacement for fixed broadband.

Last week, EE, the UK’s biggest 4G provider, announced it will be upgrading over 2,500 small towns and villages to 4G before the end of the year. At the same time Vodafone told Cable.co.uk it recognised the importance of rural connectivity and is on track to achieve 98% coverage in 2015.

However, Christine Conder, a founder member of community broadband initiative Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN), told us: “It would be great to have 4G, but not as a substitute for a fixed connection.” An opinion echoed by many other rural broadband campaigners.

The government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project aims to deliver superfast broadband (defined as an internet connection over 24Mbps) to 95% of the UK by 2017. However, some rural areas have been classed as uneconomical to upgrade. The remaining 5% of the country will be able to receive at least 2Mbps by the end of the project.

Paul Dixon from Action for Rural with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), a charity representing the 38 rural councils, told us: “The rollout of 4G is a positive thing. It means another option for rural areas and will help those who need to use the internet to conduct a business, communicate with others etc.

“But it is not an alternative to fixed broadband – it’s one of a mixture of options that people can use to get online.”

A £10m broadband innovation fund was set-up in March to help boost internet connectivity in remote areas by investing in innovative ideas such as satellite broadband and 4G.

Ben Haines, founder of Lincolnshire community broadband project FibreLincs, warns that rural communities could end up paying more for a 4G internet connection: “With packages often being limited to 5/10/15GB they aren't suitable for homes with kids or people working from home.”

“So even with good coverage after the odd mobile software update, a few iPlayer views and music downloads, you'll be over your limit and paying through the nose per GB.”

However, John Delaney, associate vice president of mobile research at IDC, told us: “The 4G rollout in Germany, which completed over a year ago, can be used as a real-world benchmark. Their pricing is the same as fixed broadband but usage limits are lower.

“Effectively, consumers could be paying the same as they would for fixed broadband but using less data.”

Echoing the claims of rural broadband campaigners, Mr Delaney also told us that: “4G is a viable solution for people who haven’t already got fast broadband. It behaves similarly to a fixed broadband connection, so activities such as streaming will be the same, but you’ll definitely notice a difference if you’re a heavy user.”

Speaking to Ofcom earlier today, it told us that "it's too early to say" whether 4G could solve rural broadband issues. "We'll have to wait for the technology to roll out to villages and towns to make a judgement but ultimately it depends on the needs of the broadband user – a small business and a light home user are going to have different demands on the network," it said.

EE told us they've just launched new 4G Wi-Fi plans for customers in the 2,588 rural areas that will be upgraded to 4G. Home broadband packages start from £10 a month for 1GB of data increasing to £50 a month for 50GB. Small businesses get 4G slightly cheaper as they will pay £8.33 for 1GB and £41.67 for 50GB, a 80GB tariff is also available to business broadband users.

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