Written by Adam Leach, Director of Emerging Technology, Nominet

It was Henry Ford, that maestro of cars, who said “if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”. If this mentality could be applied to the ongoing effort to provide internet connection to all households in the UK, could we finally achieve 100% coverage at an affordable, realistic price?

Internet arrived in dial-up form in the UK in 1992. This was followed by broadband, which was reaching over half of British homes by 2007. Fast-forward 11 years and we are close to complete broadband connectivity, although there remains the ‘final 5%’ – now approximately 4% – still without any connection. The percentage sounds small, but this equates to over 1 million households.

Fibre connections are considered the gold standard as the Government works to place internet connectivity on a par with other basic requirements, such as food, power and employment. To that end, the Government has now legislated a Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband, giving all premises a legal right to at least 10Mbps (deemed sufficient for an average family, says Ofcom), up to a threshold, by 2020. Digital Scotland has taken an ambitious step further, promising to reach 100% of the country with speeds of up to 30Mbps by 2021 with the R100 programme.

Fibre is undoubtedly a great enabler for broadband. However, achieving 100% coverage with fibre alone is an unrealistic prospect due to the costs of connecting remote locations. But there is another option; wireless. Wireless is regarded by some in the industry as the lesser of the two access technologies due to the physical constraints of radio propagation. Also, too often the advantages of fibre are pitched against the disadvantages of wireless. This can lead to an unproductive dialogue about how best to connect our country with a single-minded focus on fibre; acknowledging that both have their advantages and disadvantages would be more productive.

Realistically, fibre will not connect everyone. This is already evident from the final 4% that still can’t access a connection amid this focus on fibre. The only way to achieve the ambition of connecting the whole population is by using fibre in the most part, then extending the reach through wireless.  

Wireless has many technologies available – we can select the most appropriate based on the challenges that fibre is struggling to overcome. One option is TV White Space (TVWS), which Nominet and others have been using as a means of boosting rural connectivity in the UK and internationally. With Broadway Partners we’ve had success deploying commercial TVWS networks in hard to reach areas including Arran and Loch Ness. We have also partnered with Microsoft on this solution in the US, aiming to reduce the number of people in rural America without internet connectivity.

TVWS works well in places where challenging topography and weather hamper line-of-sight, so traditional wireless solutions may struggle. Therefore, it can be considered as part of any network operators tool-kit. An increasing number of Wireless ISPs are now looking to use the technology to bridge the digital divide in the UK: Whitespace Technology Ltd are launching a TVWS service in a rural community within the Stirling hills, connecting over 100 properties in what could be the largest deployment of TVWS technology in the country.

What further proof do we need that a collaborative solution is the only way to achieve the 100% connectivity ambitions that our Government has set its sights on? The aim is a worthy one – everyone should enjoy equal, strong connections to access the digital world that underpins society – but the approach is lacking. Let’s take a leaf out of Ford’s book and think collaboratively for mutual benefit and success. 

Hear more from Adam Leach at Connected Britain on the 19 – 20 June 2018, where Nominet is a Gold Sponsor. To attend the conference, register here