Should broadband for the final 10% be one project or a series of increments? Should it be the final 5% or final 10%, and what’s the difference?
Industry colleague John Popham highlighted an article in the Western Morning News covering comments from Devon MP Neil Parish to the BDUK Chief Executive, Chris Townsend. Much of the item wasn’t news – that people in hard to reach rural areas are severely impacted and irritated by the state their broadband.
What did catch my eye was this:
“Mr Townsend said the hardest-to-reach areas would be the focus of the third phase of the programme, with the aim to reach them by 2020 “at the very latest”. He added: “Some of these rural areas are very, very, very hard to reach.”
The first phase of the programme built on the commercial footprint to take coverage from around 70% to about 90% of the UK population. The second phase is seeking to raise this to around 95%, again starting where the previous phase left off. So the quoted third phase will be focussing on the the final 5%.
The challenge this approach has created is that the final 5% is highly fragmented and has become exponentially harder to solve with each passing phase.
A two-pronged approach seeking to solve final 5% as a standalone problem will be asking suppliers to find superfast broadband solutions for clusters of perhaps 1 or 2 premises. Given that much of the final 5% is covered in trees and located at the bottom of long, winding valleys, even wireless models begin to break down at this level of dispersion, especially when factoring in operational support costs for a network with only a handful of customers spanning many square miles of countryside.
In aggregate the final 5% is likely to include 1 – 1.5 million homes and businesses at a population density akin to a desert state like Libya but with that population evenly distributed across the totality of the land.
By way of contrast, a decision was taken in West Oxfordshire to treat the whole of the final 10% as one problem to solve. This was far from a simple decision but its not as hard as creating standalone business cases in a two-stage approach for increasingly fragmented pockets of digital exclusion. While the final 10% is fragmented, it has sufficient clustering to find sensible solutions which are viable for all stakeholders – community, private and public sectors.
The final 10% is a complex space, and splitting the problem in two is likely to concentrate that complexity in such a way that for some there may simply be no solution.
The approach in West Oxfordshire was to find a model that manages this complexity in a scalable way and maximises digital inclusion.