The National Farmers Union has published the results from its latest online and telephone based survey of 812 members, which found that just 16% of farmers had access to “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) speeds (up from 4% in 2015) and only 17% have a “reliable” outdoor mobile signal. But the situation has improved.
The news that farmers, which tend to work in some of the United Kingdom’s most sparse and remote rural areas, suffer from slow broadband and weak mobile signals shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Many of the locations where farmers operate are often last on the list for upgrades due to the economic challenges of building expensive networks to cater for so few users over a wide area.
At present nearly 96% of premises can access a “superfast broadband” connection, which is thanks in no small part to the state aid funded Broadband Delivery UKprogramme. Meanwhile Ofcom’s recent Connected Nations 2018 report found that the outdoor geographic coverage of 4G services across the UK is still painfully low at 66% (up from 43%) from all four mobile operators or 91% from at least one operator (EE).
The coverage of both mobile and broadband services has improved a lot over the past few years but this won’t mean much to those who have been left waiting at the end of a long line for years.
At this point it’s worth remembering that Britain’s food and farming sector is currently worth £113 billion to the UK economy, employing 3.9 million people, and could benefit from digital upgrades (more efficient farming methods etc.). But those can only come if they’re able to access decent connectivity.
The good news is that the roll-out of faster connectivity services hasn’t stopped. For example, the BDUK project hopes to extend the coverage of “superfast broadband” to around 98% by the end of 2020 and after that the new 10Mbps+ Universal Service Obligation (USO) may help to fill in some of the gaps (here). As a result it may be a case of many farmers simply needing to upgrade (i.e. awareness of the new services).
Similarly Ofcom’s plan to auction the 700MHz band to mobile operators this year, which could be used for 4G and 5G services, will come attached to a new coverage obligation (here). This should extend outdoor data coverage to at least 90% of the UK’s entire land area and provide coverage from at least 500 new mobile mast stations in rural areas, among other things.
At the same time it’s worth remembering that EE alone are already working to extend the geographic reach of their 4G network to 95% by the end of December 2020, although it remains to be seen if that is actually achieved given some of the known challenges with reaching remote locations (power supply, planning permission, rugged terrain, network capacity provision etc.).
On top of that the Government has pledged to ensure “nationwide” coverage of Gigabit capable “full fibre” (FTTP) broadband ISP networks by 2033 and in last year’s budget they committed a further £200m to that, which has been targeted to deliver key fibre optic links into rural areas. “As an industry, we will hold the government to that promise of ensuring the very best levels of digital connectivity across rural Britain,” said Stuart.
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments.