Our efforts to tackle rural coverage are gaining momentum


By Marc Allera, CEO, BT's Consumer Division

Building and operating a mobile network has long been a balancing act between increasing capacity to keep pace with growing demands for data and expanding coverage to new places. Between them, coverage and capacity determine our online experience through our smartphones and demand for both is insatiable; we’re in a constant race to deliver faster, broader infrastructure in anticipation of the next big app or service, even before its launched.

5G is, in part, the industry’s response. Although 5G was switched on in the UK just over two years ago, some continue to dismiss the technology as noisy marketing, lacking any tangible applications that benefit customers. This not only ignores the immediate benefits of 5G deployment – delivering vital capacity to cope with the exponentially growing bandwidth needed by new technologies – but also more importantly 5G’s role as a digital catalyst for innovation and new business models.

We use our smartphones for nearly everything, from booking taxis to buying food, as well as being there for loved ones around the clock. Apps like Uber, Deliveroo and WhatsApp took off only following the introduction of 4G – they couldn’t have gone mainstream over the limited capabilities of earlier network technologies. Likewise, 5G, through private networks, ‘digital twins’ and truly immersive augmented reality, is already spawning innovation beyond the possibilities of 4G.

Ensuring the capacity is in place to facilitate new technology cycles is essential, but only solves part of the problem we face; what’s needed is expanding capacity and coverage. The balance between the two often manifests itself as a rural vs urban debate which some term the ‘digital divide.’ It’s natural for businesses within any sector to prioritise the areas of highest demand, but as digital infrastructure becomes the default way to deliver everything from groceries to graduations, that divide becomes more apparent and more unacceptable.

Efforts to level up rural connectivity are already underway. Industry investment is increasingly delivering fibre into smaller communities while ‘Project Gigabit’ is a government initiative to extend gigabit speeds to more than one million homes in hard to reach areas, with additional voucher schemes to drive coverage even further. In mobile, EE continues to expand a leading rural footprint and is taking part in a Shared Rural Network to help extend coverage to around 95% of the UK. Between them, the mobile and fixed networks are delivering the foundation of the country’s digital infrastructure, with a promise of converged services to come, ensuring more rural communities are enjoying better connections. But beyond them, we need to continue to work with Government to support those that live and work in the very hardest to reach parts of the country.

Even with industry will and investment, not-spots will remain. For mobile coverage, those gaps can be particularly tricky, because they often fall between communities, in places of low – or at times no – population; areas where customers can be briefly passing through. It’s a fact that some of our sites carry fewer than 10 calls a day.

Meeting this demand requires a mindset shift. While we want to ensure customers can have coverage wherever they go, that does not mean coverage must be everywhere they could go, all the time. At present, when we think of mobile infrastructure, we think of what we call the macro network – permanent masts and antennas. But in areas where mobile use is both low and intermittent, ‘on demand’ coverage solutions could be more widely used instead, ensuring connectivity is available even where it’s not practical or economic to build a whole new tower.

Some temporary solutions are already available. Rapid response vehicles are portable masts, deployable for a range of scenarios that over the past year have included supporting replacement coverage following arson attacks, to aiding emergency services communications at remote accidents. They’re a proven way of expanding network capacity in difficult environments. Other opportunities are also emerging, notably through Low Earth Orbit satellites. Companies such as Starlink, Kuiper and OneWeb are helping to challenge the financial and logistical barriers that burden traditional network architecture. Their technology could help provide wider and more secure mobile services, as well as expanding the opportunities for permanent connectivity in some areas. The key is ensuring ‘on demand’ solutions become more mainstream and affordable, able to meet customer needs for coverage when they’re on the move.

The profound impacts of the pandemic have raised our expectations of networks over the past year-and-a-half, but that is nothing compared to the decade of rapid innovation ahead of us. Reducing the digital divide doesn’t mean delivering complete parity of services but it does mean ensuring everyone can access the connectivity they need when they want it, and regardless of where they are. Looking at new ways to deliver affordable access to mobile services is crucial if we want to ensure today’s ‘hard to reach’ areas fall within tomorrow’s digital range.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @marcallera