Ultra fast broadband — defined as broadband services with connectivity at 300 megabits per second (mbps) and above — is an often passed political football.
In the UK a lack of ultra fast broadband is limiting productivity and economic growth as well as making it harder for people and businesses in rural areas to keep up with their urban neighbours.
But delivering new and faster services is expensive and takes time.
Investment focuses on population-dense areas which offer the fastest returns and this threatens to create a wider social divide as economic development will be delayed in rural areas that face other challenges.
Even in urban areas businesses risk being left out as ultra fast broadband will inevitably be geared initially towards the consumer market.
Businesses and governments have to make sure that as we move towards the so-called gigabit society the digital divide isn’t widened.
In the UK, Openreach – the fixed network arm of BT – has responded to criticism by accelerating and expanding plans for the roll out of the hybrid fibre and copper technology G.fast, which will deliver download speeds of up to 330mbps.
Openreach will also deliver FTTP (fibre-to-the-premise) offering symmetrical connectivity of one gigabits per second (gbps) to a larger number of homes.
Vodafone, in turn, has announced a partnership with CityFibre to support the roll out of gigabit FTTP services.
This support, however, is just a commitment to resell the service and does not represent financial backing; plans are presently limited to reaching only 20 percent of homes in the UK.
Even Openreach, which boasts greater financial power and is in a stronger position to deliver services, is only bringing ultra fast broadband to 12m homes and businesses by 2020 – less than 50 percent of the total number.
Putting aside consumer connectivity, what about businesses?
In urban areas, many businesses will be covered by ultra fast broadband as they are located in or around residential areas, but those in business districts, and those in business parks may be missed.
There are questions over whether even ultra fast broadband is truly a business grade access service, but the reality is that many small businesses and startups in these areas will be left out as they will suffer from the lack of availability of affordable ultra fast connectivity.
These small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy and supporting them is crucial to future prosperity.
Broadband provision outside major towns and cities is already a problem.
Ultra fast broadband threatens to increase the gap as many will be left with poor connections whilst those in cities are enjoying 300mbps connectivity.
What’s the solution? It could be 5G — the next generation of mobile internet technology.
Residents and businesses located in local areas, and those who represent them, should be pushing mobile network providers to invest in 5G in rural areas.
5G can represent a lower cost, high-bandwidth alternative to access services based on fibre or copper.
In Germany, for example, the government required operators to prioritise rural areas when rolling out 4G – similar schemes should be considered for 5G.