Three UK calls for policy reform to supercharge rural gigabit broadband

Operator says 5G-based wireless internet could deliver gigabit broadband access to rural areas more quickly and cheaply than with standard fixed-line technology

Research from CCS Insight and Three UK is making the case that people living and working in rural areas of the UK could be connected to the next generation of gigabit broadband more quickly and for half the cost of fixed-line technology if the government backs fixed wireless access (FWA) – superfast 5G broadband that can be delivered through the airwaves at speeds comparable to fibre technology.

The report, 5G fixed wireless can help the UK bridge its digital divide and achieve gigabit aspirations, puts the government’s ambition for 85% of UK premises to have access to gigabit broadband by 2025 under the microscope, in particular the reliance on fixed-line technology to enable this. The firms say significant infrastructure changes are needed before 2025 for this to happen, costing about £4,000 per location in harder-to-reach areas.

Benefits attributed to FWA by Three UK and CCS Insight include removal of the infrastructure barrier, prevention of excessive road damage, faster connections and environmental gains. As 5G masts are being rolled out across the UK, FWA can connect to these local masts rather than additional infrastructure being built. FWA is a “plug-and-play” wireless system that can be deployed without extensive wait times that are currently faced with fibre.

The firms have also calculated that FWA could be installed for half the cost of full fibre and still provide comparable connectivity. Currently, only 20% of rural areas are able to access ultra-fast Wi-Fi, leaving four in five people to wait on fibre to enable them to facilitate remote working, among other applications.

However, Three and CCS stress that policy reforms are vital to enable wider access to FWA, particularly to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which provides greater rights to mobile network operators and is intended to make it easier and more affordable to roll out networks. They argue that the ECC currently hinders, rather than enables, a quicker roll-out of 5G because of a lack of clarity surrounding operators’ ability to exercise their rights.

This means, they say, that often, operators get embroiled in long and costly legal battles with site providers to try to exercise those rights, including the ability to renegotiate a new agreement under new ECC rates. The survey argues that a 60% reduction in site rentals over 10 years through ECC reform would fund the expansion of the Three 5G network by 20%, enabling it to reach even more people with 5G.

The other area in which the firms are asking for reform relates to Permitted Development Rights, which Three says limits its ability to build and upgrade the necessary infrastructure for 5G and better 4G connectivity.

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Although Three said it welcomed the government’s decision to consult on both matters, it said it was essential to bring such reforms forward as quickly as possible to ensure everyone can access better connectivity. “Gigabit-speed internet is critical for the UK’s long-term prosperity,” said David Hennessy, chief technology officer for Three UK and Ireland. “However, the government is too focused on investing in one type of technology – fixed line.

“Fixed line, or fibre, is significantly more difficult to roll out than FWA, which only needs a mobile signal to operate. It’s time for a greater consideration of a wider pool of technology, particularly FWA, to help those in rural areas have access to faster internet and, ultimately, help reduce the digital divide.”

CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann added: “Although current broadband networks are sufficient for many of today’s needs, future demand for more data-intensive services will soon start to push their limits. The government’s ambition to reach at least 85% of UK premises with gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 is an ambitious target.

“It will necessitate urgent policy reform to remove barriers to network deployment, an acceleration in build-out ambition from UK providers and an open approach to new connectivity solutions through a mix of technologies – 5G fixed wireless access can form a significant part of this.”

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