How COVID-19 catalyzed rural connectivity in Britain

Person holding up a smartphone in a rural setting
(Image credit: Pixabay)

During the first few weeks of the pandemic, broadband traffic in the East Midlands increased by 27%. Staggeringly by the end of the year, traffic had more than doubled. The reasons behind this are obvious; many, many people were locked down, working from home, learning from home, shopping online, entertaining themselves. Doing everything from home, online, all the time.

About the author

Phil Siveter is is CEO, UK & Ireland at Nokia.

And that goes for more than just one region of the UK – the whole country, from its biggest cities to its smallest villages were doing more online. Most commentators believe that this shift in our digital behavior will be, to a large degree, permanent, meaning the telecoms industry needs to adapt – now.

We’ve long known about the socio-economic benefits of broadband, but it’s of particular importance when addressing the digital divide. On a social level, broadband simply makes life better; for employment, for access to remote healthcare and education, and all the Netflix you can binge watch. In terms of economic growth, we see about a 1-1.5% increase in GDP for just a 10% increase in broadband connectivity.

It’s these socio-economic benefits that have driven broadband coverage targets, since we now know broadband is vital for sustaining communities, economies and even saving lives. Unfortunately, though, one key problem has arisen from this.

Widening the field of view

For years, there has been a misconception in the industry that coverage figures are the best indicator of usage. However, in areas with below average connectivity, data usage gets artificially capped.

This means that a customer on an ADSL or 4G connection will never show a massive spike in usage, because their 10 Mb/s connection simply cannot support it.

This has been playing out around the world, including in the UK, and has distorted understanding in the industry of the area’s most in need of attention when it comes to connectivity. A key learning from the pandemic is that the digital divide is not just about coverage, but it’s also about minimum service levels.

This is especially prevalent in times of crisis. For example, in a household with multiple people suddenly having to work, learn, and live online, all at the same time, really, they need a new minimum download speed of 50 Mb/s.

What’s more, the household doesn’t just consume, but it generates video traffic through Zoom and Facetime, too. So upstream speeds need a minimum speed of 15 Mb/s. When framing the challenge in this way, we start to understand that minimum service levels need to be adapted to stand up to new demands.

Diversifying the approach

Gigabit fiber broadband is brilliant, but it’s not much use in a pandemic if it only reaches 10% of the population. Likewise, ubiquitous 5G mobile broadband would be ideal but, again, not much help if it becomes saturated in a time of need.

Countries with the most robust and resilient connectivity have a good balance of fixed and mobile broadband. To provide the performance levels needed across rural areas, and to give governments the resilience they need to keep economies and communities going in changing circumstances, it is instrumental that fiber and 5G to work together.

By taking a joined-up approach in our 5G and fiber deployments, we can accelerate broadband deployments, as well as significantly reduce the costs for consumers. This is particularly important, because we can then shift our focus from homes passed to homes actually connected with ultrafast broadband.

And that will lead us to a more resilient economy more quickly and more economically than either technology can alone.

The role of 5G

To accelerate 5G rollout we tap into the fiber that is already there, i.e. Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) networks.

Doing so greatly accelerates the deployment of 5G and greatly reduces the cost. 5G returns the favor when we’re trying to connect the unconnected, or the under-served: those households without a 50 Mb/s plus broadband connection.

Think about it this way; there are some areas where it is really difficult to lay fiber. That might be remote villages, for example, or towns that are protected for their heritage.

In these situations, a solution is to get fiber as close as possible to the site, and then use 5G fixed wireless access for the final connection.

This is already being done – for example earlier this year, NBN in Australia delivered nearly 1 Gb/s over 7.3km with 5G fixed wireless access, which is staggering.

And it just shows the potential of using 5G networks to complement fiber rollouts and ensure no household is left behind.

By taking a joined-up approach to fiber and 5G rollouts, we’re able to connect more homes more quickly, bring down the cost to connect, and give homes the minimum broadband speeds they need for the future.

This gives governments a more resilient society and a more robust economy and resilient nation. Not just to ride out the next crisis. But to bring those socio-economic advantages to every household across the country.

Phil Siveter is is CEO, UK & Ireland at Nokia, where he is driving Nokia’s world class portfolio forward and is responsible for Nokia’s partners and alliances in the UK&I.