Getting the UK’s rural communities connected
Release the brakes – connecting communities in rural Britain
Listen to David Hilliard, CEO of Mentor, sharing Mentor’s hard-hitting solution for a truly connected Britain, and fixing the rural mobile coverage problem, once and for all.
Did you know – that about 200,000 homes in this country don’t have a good mobile signal? That’s nearly half a million of us.
And 41,000 buildings don’t have decent broadband service either!
This is appalling and it’s gone on for too long. People’s lives are being blighted by their lack of connectivity!
I have to say I was quite taken aback when I saw the numbers!
For the last few years, Mentor has been working on how to crack the twin challenges of 4G densification and 5G mobilisation in our biggest cities.
Right now, we’re applying the lessons learned to the other end of the demographic continuum – the unserved rural fringe.
Hello, my name is David Hilliard, and today, I’m going to talk about how we can all tackle the rural mobile coverage problem in the UK, and eliminate the “Digital Divide.”
- Firstly, I’ll cover how we’re neglecting the mobile needs of people living in rural areas. They don’t want our sympathy – they just want a decent mobile service. And they’ve waited long enough.
- Secondly, I’ll talk about changing the way we think about how we deploy mobile networks in these areas. We have to be bold and innovative to solve this problem.
- And finally, I’ll share with you a proposed solution from Mentor – that’s practical – and while probably not commercially viable – at least offers the lowest cost solution. People living in rural areas would no longer be treated as an afterthought – living off scraps from their urban cousins.
We all know mobile networks are most profitable in big cities.
But, as you’d imagine, operator profit in rural areas is as elusive as delighted customers.
Ofcom believes 9% of the UK’s landmass – and 0.5% of the population has no mobile service at all. And many don’t have a decent broadband service either.
Over the years, the Government has made repeated attempts to fix this problem but – no luck so far.
We city-dwellers know what mobile deprivation feels like. At peak times, even with 5 bars, we can feel just as depressed as people in the rural fringe. In London Bridge, for example – and many other parts of central London.
Looking back – many previous spectrum auctions have carried rollout obligations. And while coverage has improved for some people – it hasn’t for others.
This time around, Ofcom wants to target the rural mobile coverage problem again. And the latest spectrum consultations on 700MHz and 3.4-3.8GHz – strongly imply that.
Ofcom says only 66% of the UK’s landmass has good 4G from all 4 mobile operators – and 9% has none at all.
So, it’s possible Ofcom will stick heavy coverage obligations on this 700MHz spectrum.
But let’s be frank – all 4 operators would love to get their hands on it. It’s extremely valuable and almost certain to deliver another substantial windfall for the Government.
The burning question is this.
Will this spectrum, in the hands of new owners, reduce the 9% who can’t get any signal in rural areas?
What if the operator with the poorest coverage wins it? Won’t that just increase the 66% number – and leave the 9% ‘wasteland’ untouched?
Looking at Ofcom’s Connected Nations Report, it’s clear BT and Three have the least sub 1GHz spectrum – at 10MHz each – compared to Vodafone and O2, who have close to 55MHz each.
This doesn’t mean BT or Three will win the 700 MHz auction, but it’s a strong clue that both operators will be well-motivated to grab it.
So let’s imagine for a moment …
What if BT and Three do win this valuable spectrum? What impact would it have on their coverage?
Both operators would probably focus on quickly rolling it out across their networks – for two very good reasons. To create an extended 4G coverage layer – and to improve urban building penetration.
These would be perfectly logical steps for both companies to take.
It’s hard to say what will happen – but I think the most likely result is BT and Three would just match the voice landmass coverage of O2 and Vodafone.
In other words, the age-old ‘Inside-out’ rollout approach – building from big cities towards the countryside – would have a trivial effect on rural coverage. And it would still leave the 9% untouched.
Everyone knows, the ‘Digital Divide’ places a frustrating brake on economic development in rural areas. It simply blocks residents from experiencing the benefits of high-speed Internet access.
Past efforts to close the gap simply haven’t worked. And if we want to sidestep another massive let-down, we need a different approach.
That’s why we have to learn from our mistakes and change the way we deploy mobile networks in the countryside.
At Mentor, we follow a “do-the-simple-thing-first” approach.
By that, we mean: define the problem, design a straightforward solution for it, and then flawlessly execute the programme to deliver that solution.
In this case, we believe the solution is to build a ‘separate’ Mobile Network, designed to provide service in the 9% of the UK, currently unserved by the main networks.
It’s a “traditional” mobile network – but shaped by Mentor’s seven principles into a novel intervention that could solve the ‘rural divide’, once and for all.
It’s worth pausing here to remind ourselves that solving the rural problem is not commercially viable today. If it were, the operators would have done it years ago.
The solution clearly requires financial assistance from the Government. That’s why we’re focused on getting the best bang for the buck by minimising costs and maximising revenue.
Let’s look at some of the detail.
Mentor’s idea for a new mobile network – for rural – is shaped by 7 key principles:
- Build from the ‘Outside-In’
- Do Mobile-first
- Build a Rural ‘Neutral Host’ Mobile Network
- Focus on 4G, but Prepare for 5G
- Allocate as much Sub 1GHz Spectrum as possible
- Allow Fixed Wireless Broadband options
- And, finally, Share everything
So, what does all this mean?
We propose a radically different way of solving the rural fringe problem – by following an ‘Outside-in’ approach – from the countryside towards the big cities.
Instead of struggling to get the mobile operators to handle this – deliberately build a single Neutral Host Mobile Network to cover the rural areas – and encourage operators and service providers to use it.
But this is easier said than done.
The 9% is not in a conveniently shaped area, where base stations can be planned in a neat grid. The ‘not-spots’ are heavily fragmented and will need careful planning to unpick them from marginal service areas.
In some cases, even asking operators to ‘pull back’ their coverage so an area can be covered by a base station in a much better position.
Let’s face it – digging fibre connections to every home and business in the 9% is expensive and time-consuming.
Rolling out ‘Mobile-first’ is faster and cheaper than rolling out Full Fibre everywhere – but has more limited capacity.
I think it’s better to get some service, for example, 5Mb/s – enough for TV streaming – rather than possibly wait years for a Gigabit fibre service?
It also maximises network capacity.
And, Mobile can work anywhere – not just in a home.
RURAL NEUTRAL HOST MOBILE NETWORK
A Rural Neutral Host Mobile Network is not a technical innovation. It’s a mobile network like any other – the difference is the commercial model it uses.
It has no direct customers and offers services to other mobile operators through national roaming.
National roaming is just like standard international roaming – except customers are roaming between networks – in the same country.
What’s more, we’re not blazing a new trail with the integration task between the Neutral Host Network and the Operators either.
This is the simplest way to give people in the rural fringe the best coverage – irrespective of their choice of mobile operator. It also maximises the number of customers that could use the network – and the host’s revenue potential.
There may be genuine concerns about customer experience issues with national roaming – but these can be solved. Transferring some existing operator sites in rural areas to the Neutral Host could minimise and simplify these boundaries.
A really helpful international precedent is the Finnish shared network between DNA and Telia Finland. Finland’s much larger rural fringe is covered by a Neutral Shared Network – but owned by the 2 Finnish operators.
It covers half of Finland’s total geographic area – and serves approximately 15 per cent of the population.
FOCUS ON 4G, BUT PREPARE FOR 5G
4G was an architectural step-change for mobile networks and provided the foundation for 5G.
Not just bringing a radically simpler data-centric core structure. But also voice as an application. And, for the first time, credible mobile broadband services.
By focusing on 4G alone, the Neutral Host gets all these benefits – without the complication of building legacy 2G and 3G networks.
Legacy handsets won’t work, of course. But, given the pace of 4G Smartphone adoption, this shouldn’t stop any customer from using the service.
In truth, the savings from sidestepping a 2/3G network build would fund a shedload of 4G handsets.
SUB 1GHZ SPECTRUM
We suggest allocating as much sub 1GHz spectrum to this network as possible – to exploit its wide-coverage characteristics.
This cuts the base station count – and related costs – to a minimum.
Ofcom should auction the 700MHz spectrum at full market value for the 91% of the country already covered,
…… but actually give the same spectrum to this new rural network – for the 9% ‘not-spot’ areas.
We recommend giving the Neutral Host ‘priority use’ of the spectrum over 91% – and encourage the Operators to adjust coverage plans to fix any interference and overlap issues.
If the spectrum is auctioned in a conventional way, the 700MHz spectrum will provide 2 well-to-do operators with 21Mb/s capacity per sector, each.
But, if this was allocated to the Neutral Host, it would give c42Mb/s sector capacity – and around 70Mb/s – if the supplemental downlink (SDL) is used.
But, as you all know, capacity plummets, if most of the usage is indoors. The base station has to compensate for a poor signal.
Unfortunately, 5G is not going to save us. Its innovations are focused on maximising capacity in urban settings.
The bottom line is – there isn’t enough spectrum – to support meaningful indoor and broadband-like usage.
But if we add the unused 800MHz and 900MHz spectrum from these parts to the rural network. And leaving a little for legacy 2G/3G – that would give about 112Mb/s per sector downlink capacity (and around 140Mb/s, if the SDL is used).
Better still, installing rooftop antennas with a Wi-Fi home gateway, will provide deep indoor coverage and substantially boost effective network capacity to around 450Mb/s per sector.
Now that sounds like a great place to start!
ENABLE FIXED WIRELESS BROADBAND OPTIONS
Economies of scope are fundamental to successful network businesses. The ability to use one set of assets to serve multiple markets is usually good news.
Ofcom say there are nearly 40k rural premises without mobile or broadband coverage. So, this network should aim to deliver both – and it can do that in a number of ways.
Firstly, by appointing at least one fixed Internet Service Provider (ISP) to deliver a fixed wireless broadband service – exploiting the rooftop technology – for those customers whose best option is to use a mobile.
It’s never going to compete with Full Fibre Internet connections. But in areas of very low population density – where the cost of Full Fibre could be prohibitive – the alternative of mobile broadband is significantly better than what people have today.
Second, as the mobile network is built out, new fibre routes will be opened up. It makes sense to use this fibre – not just for mobile backhaul – but also to help ‘light up’ local Full Fibre and Wireless Broadband schemes.
The Government’s £200m fund for Rural Gigabit Connectivity is totally on this page – adding the use of public buildings as local fibre hubs.
The final principle is “sharing”. Remote communities know how to help each other and are good at sharing what they have.
As the Neutral Host Network is built, it needs to share whatever it can to help others – ducts, power, buildings, roof tops – and so on.
All these assets will help close the “Digital Divide”, one way or another.
So, what’s in it for you?
That really depends on who you are.
If you’re a long-suffering resident of the rural fringe, this is a massive step forward. Having a decent 4G mobile service – and broadband – for your home or office is very good news. It’s not as good as Full Fibre service – but it completely outstrips the miserable long-line ADSL performance you’ve had for years.
It also brings fibre that bit closer to you and your neighbours.
If you’re in Government, this is both good and bad news.
The good news is your policy to drive Rural Full Fibre from the ‘Outside-in’ has inspired a similar approach in mobile. What’s more, significant synergies are possible between the two programmes.
This is a chance to fix a long-running sore. And a chance to deliver a rare public policy victory.
The bad news is you have to find the cash subsidy to build and operate the network. At least, in the short term
You’ll also have the unwelcome task of drawing the line on coverage – by deciding where it’s too expensive to go.
Clearly, we can’t afford a base station that only sees a phone once a year from a local mountain peak.
If you’re Ofcom, perhaps this is the best news you’ve had in years. You can solve the rural problem – and you don’t need to find any more money.
You can get back to nurturing 5G deployment and refereeing BT.
But perhaps you could also take on the unpopular task of drawing the new line on coverage?
Look: we’re proposing a novel way of cracking this problem. Spectrum is crucial. But we can’t do it – if we continue to manage spectrum the way we always have. Ofcom needs to embrace change.
Ofcom’s announcement in June 2019 about creating thousands of 5G spectrum owners is really good news. It’s an example of lateral thought and innovation – or at least imitation. Let’s hope this marks a ‘sea-change’ in thinking that could help unlock the rural problem.
If you’re a mobile operator you may think this is a mixed blessing – but trust me it’s good news.
The endless challenge of building more and more uneconomic base stations could be coming to an end. Allowing Operators to focus on profitable urban coverage – and 5G.
May 2019’s announcement by all four Operators, of a conventional passive tower network share, may give them some breathing space – but it’s not likely to solve the rural problem.
Surely, the solution must involve pooling – and spectrum sharing?
Operators could be worried about the strategic threat of a 5th mobile network – even if it’s constrained to rural areas – and worried about the cost of roaming and customer experience issues.
But a similar approach to the Finnish shared network between DNA and Telia Finland could give the benefits of – deep sharing with backhaul, towers, base stations and spectrum.
If this network is led by the UK mobile family, this would at least underpin the design, construction – and smooth operation of the network.
Who knows, maybe the operators will choose to extend sharing even more deeply into the 91% – to improve service and economics for everyone.
We have a great opportunity to finally solve the rural mobile coverage problem. It shouldn’t be ignored any longer.
Anorexic schemes – that tinker around the edges of the problem – and halfway measures truly belong to yesterday.
Nobody is saying it won’t be hard – tough decisions are required. It demands a change in approach, some fresh thinking – and an injection of pace and momentum.
This is an opportunity for the Government to get the structure of the 700MHz spectrum auction right – for the mobile operators to break new ground – and for the industry to get a sensible level of financial investment in place todo the right thing.’
The stage is then set for developing a no-nonsense plan to actually get the job done.
The Rural ‘Neutral Host’ Mobile Network is a radical departure from where we are today – but offers considerable benefits to people who – still remain starved of mobile coverage.
The time to grasp the nettle – and act – is now. There will never be a better opportunity.
Thank you for listening!