How satellite can fill in the UK's broadband not spots

If you want to plan where to get to, and when to get there, you first have to be sure of where you are starting from, writes Max Gutberlet, product marketing...

If you want to plan where to get to, and when to get there, you first have to be sure of where you are starting from, writes Max Gutberlet, product marketing manager Europe at Hughes Europe.

Yet in looking at the proposed roadmap to achieving 100% broadband coverage in the UK under the Digital Britain initiative - originally targeted for 2012 by the previous Labour administration but more recently pushed out to 2015 by the new coalition government - the picture is far from obvious.

The thinkbroadband website lets individuals report their own experience of "not spots" (where broadband is not available at all) and "slow spots" (where users can only get broadband at speeds below 2Mbps). It paints a very different picture of broadband coverage to that painted by the official maps.

As the online map graphically shows, even in central London and other industrial centres throughout the UK, many users are currently unable to get high-speed broadband.

The result is that the gap between the reality of user experience today and where the government wants to get to seems somewhat wider than the published headlines would seem to indicate*.

Yet however imprecise the start point, the end goal is certain. As culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said earlier this year, in driving a national digital economy: "We want Britain to have the best superfast broadband network in Europe."

The broader signposts already indicate the destination. In its ambitious new digital agenda announced on 20 September, the European Commission sought to provide standardised definitions of the services to be provided. Although there is no definition of how fast "basic broadband" should be, 2013 is the target date for universal availability throughout the EU, and the commission wants all EU households to have access to at least 30Mbps, and half or more to have access 100Mbps and above by 2020.

Hunt might have extended the boundaries of this competitive ambition still further. The day before the EC announcement, the secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Hamadoun Touré, told the United Nations to consider the availability of high speed networks as nothing less than a basic human right, and challenged them to ensure that half of all the world's people had access to broadband by 2015.

So what are the options available to the UK?

At present, though plans are in the early stages of development, the UK appears to be moving towards the Universal Service Obligation (USO) model, already in operation in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

To meet their obligation, the incumbent provider in these countries has, in every case, opted to use satellite access to fill in coverage gaps where it does not make sense, either economically or because of terrain, to build a copper or fibre infrastructure.

So what might this look like in the UK?

A request to tender is likely to include a requirement to provide everyone in the UK with broadband connectivity with a minimum of 2Mbps downstream at a reasonable price.

The continental experience provides limited guidance as to what a reasonable price should be. However, as part of their commercial USO agreement, the Finnish government has set a price target of €30-40 per month for a 1Mbps service today, and for 2Mbps in 2012.

In the initial stages, the inclusion of satellite connectivity is likely to be more expensive. Users pay more for a satellite dish than for a DSL (digital subscriber loop) line. Moreover, complex issues around funding a USO in a way acceptable to the UK consumer show that DSL is not the magic bullet some imagine it to be.

There is another way. Terrestrial will continue to perform best in urban and suburban environments, and cellular also performs well in more rural areas. However, as elsewhere in Europe, satellite comes into its own in remote geographies where alternative technologies are technically or commercially unviable. And this is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.

In the UK, satellite is already available and is set to become cheaper in 2011 with the launch of Ka-band satellite broadband solutions. These have been developed, based and mainly funded within the UK, with proposed pricing in line with the Finnish model, ie around £25 to £35/m for a 2Mbps service.

Rather than spend money exclusively extending the duct and cable network, government could also encourage end-user pull by providing financial support for end-user equipment sales. This would be an alternative way to address the commercial development of broadband in outlying areas,

Providing users with a voucher to use any service they see as appropriate would enhance consumer choice. It would also provide a more even playing field for providers to compete in developing the best communications solution in each geography.

Critically, it would also provide a viable and more cost-effective answer to coverage in the short term. It would provide immediate benefit for the 250,000+ households and businesses that are currently unable to access high-speed broadband consistently. This would buy time for the expansion of copper and fibre-based solutions more broadly across the UK, while providing a service customers need and want now.

Terrestrial, wireless and satellite technologies are all developing fast, and each has a complementary role to play in meeting the global demand for universal access. As part of this, satellite is here to stay in extending coverage beyond that achievable by alternative technologies, and in filling in the gaps that they have left now.

*Note: At the recent Cumbrian broadband conference, several speakers pointed out that the official maps were inaccurate in another respect: they largely ignore the availability of broadband via microwave and radio, especially when the service is not supplied by either BT or Virgin Media. This means that some apparent slow and not spots do in fact get fast reliable broadband connections, despite what the offical maps say, says Ian Grant at Computer Weekly.

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