As the UK’s metropolitan regions worry about overbuild by gigabit connectivity providers, the country’s more remote regions seem at risk of being left in the broadband slow lane. To address this imbalance, the government has announced plans to enable some of the UK’s most remote homes and businesses to be connected to better broadband through satellite, and has also announced the largest deployment contract in its Project Gigabit national broadband network roll-out.
Although recent years have seen huge interest and subsequent take-up of satellite information systems as information services have become available across the world, just weeks ago, the UK government’s approach to satellite broadband was slammed by a parliamentary committee for an “uncertain and disjointed approach” that it said was not realising the full potential of a space and satellite industry valued at £16bn.
As part of the new plans, the government has officially launched a trial that will see the extent to which satellites can be used to deliver high-speed connections to more than a dozen “very hard-to-reach” locations. These are defined as the less than 1% of UK sites that are too difficult to upgrade via expensive physical cables in more extreme locations, such as mountainous areas or small islands.
Under the new scheme, a 12th century abbey in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, a scout camping site in Snowdonia, a Lake District mountain rescue base and other remote premises will have equipment installed that allows them to link up to a satellite and gain access to broadband up to 10 times faster than is currently available to them. Following the trials, the government will consider the viability of using satellite technology to connect very hard-to-reach homes and businesses across the UK.
Rievaulx Abbey, founded in 1132, in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, is one of the most complete of England's abbey ruins. The project will improve connectivity at the site and is expected to help visitors and researchers engage with educational content relating to the ancient monument. Wasdale Head in the Lake District will be connected to explore how better broadband can improve operations in communication “blackspot” zones for mountain rescue team radio and global positioning services.
Snowdonia National Park in North Wales will see two sites connected: the base of the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation to support its life-saving operations and Ty Cornel, an outdoor activity centre in Crafnant Valley managed by Scouts Cymru to help improve safety for wardens and the public traversing the isolated 25-acre site, as well as enabling new educational resources for visiting school, university or scout groups.
Other locations for satellite broadband have been identified around the UK, and discussions for further trial sites are ongoing, including small island locations in England, Scotland and Wales. As well as testing the technical capability of the satellites, the trial will assess what benefits faster connections will bring to these remote premises.
The advance of satellite broadband comes as the UK government also announced the biggest contract under its £5bn Project Gigabit programme to roll out gigabit-capable connections to hard-to-reach areas.
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The government noted that more than 72% of the country can access gigabit connections, up from just 6% – through platforms such as full-fibre – but these are mostly in urban areas. Project Gigabit is designed to accelerate the UK’s recovery from Covid-19, fire up high-growth sectors such as tech and the creative industries, and level up the country, spreading wealth and creating jobs. The government said the projects it funds will prioritise areas that currently have slow connections and would otherwise have been left behind in broadband companies’ roll-out plans.
The delivery plan for Project Gigabit is a response by the government to its public consultation Planning for gigabit delivery in 2021, which sought views on how to spend its £5bn funding commitment for gigabit broadband in hard-to-reach areas, complementing industry investment from the likes of Openreach, Virgin Media and CityFibre.
The latest contract follows similar work set for Dorset and Teesside and the new £108m contract, awarded to Northern Ireland-based provider Fibrus, will connect up to 60,000 rural homes and businesses in Cumbria which might have otherwise missed out on upgrades to faster gigabit speeds.
Fibrus will offer connectivity to rural towns, villages and hamlets across the region from Grasmere to Gilsland. Now the contract has been signed, Fibrus will begin construction of the network immediately, with the first connections anticipated by the spring.
The investment in Cumbria is also designed to spark new apprenticeship and employment opportunities in the county. Following the announcement, Fibrus is set to create at least 90 apprenticeships over the next three years – covering a range of roles, from underground and overhead cabling to surveying – and will invest £50,000 to establish an apprentice training academy near Penrith.
More areas, including Cornwall, Hampshire, Shropshire and Telford, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk are all in line for Project Gigabit contract awards by summer 2023.
In a further broadband boost for rural areas, the government will triple the value of vouchers available under the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. From early next year, eligible homes and businesses will be able to apply for up to £4,500 to cover the costs of a gigabit-capable connection – up from £1,500 for homes and £3,500 for businesses previously – which will enable broadband providers to reach further into rural areas, where the build costs are higher.