O2 commits to plugging 339 farmer Johns into the digital economy

O2 has announced it will start pumping enhanced 4G into some of most notorious not-spots throughout the UK, with 339 communities set to receive the connectivity boost.

While the digital divide is clearly still present across the UK, it does seem O2 is attempting to make use of 4G spectrum acquired in the last auction to counter the imbalance. The last 12 months has certainly seen O2 up its game on the connectivity front, Ofcom confirmed O2 had delivered against its commitment to provide 98% indoor 4G coverage and 90% geographical coverage across the UK earlier this year, and this appears to be a continuation of the positive work. O2 has stated in intends to improve the 4G experience for an additional 339 communities of more than 100 people across the UK by the end of the year.

“We know mobile has the power to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives and businesses in rural communities across Britain,” said O2 UK COO Derek McManus. “That’s why we’re proud to be investing in 4G connectivity for more than 330 rural areas by the end of this year. Technology never stands still, which is why we are always looking for the right partners and investing in our future network. Whether trialling 5G to support a future-proof, mobile Britain, or ensuring the remotest parts of rural Britain can connect to 4G, for O2, this is about continuing to invest in all areas – not one at the cost of the other.”

“4G coverage is improving all the time, but there’s more to do, particularly in rural areas,” said Digital Minister Margot James. “We’ve already reformed planning laws to make it easier and cheaper to install and upgrade digital infrastructure, and it’s great to see O2 and the rest of industry responding to ensure more people in rural Britain can share the brilliant benefits of 4G connectivity.”

Thanks partly to an enhanced mobile experience, O2 has pointed to a report from Development Economics which suggests tourism, transport and manufacturing segments could receive a financial boost with improved connectivity. Perhaps this is one of the most notorious statistics associated with the digital divide, but Development Economics predicts connectivity parity could add as much as £141 million a year to the 14,000 rural businesses who are missing out on the full digital experience.

Although this is a positive step forward, let’s not forget O2 has a lot of catching up to do, it certainly isn’t uncommon to see the brand slumping at the bottom of the mobile performance rankings. Opensignal’s most recent report assessing the performance of the four UK MNOs had O2 sat in last place for all categories aside from latency (3G and 4G) and availability, where it was second behind EE. Back in August, Rootmetrics also had O2 at the bottom of the pile for almost every category.

The performance of the network is certainly a dent in the O2 pride, but it has still managed to claim top-spot in the market share leagues. Although MNOs should stride towards creating the best possible experience for customers, O2’s top and bottom standings demonstrate buying decisions are more than performance orientated. The big differentiator between O2 and rest of the UK MNOs is its loyalty programme, Priority, which does appear to be paying dividends, while Giffgaff is still proving a successful venture to attract a new SIM-only audience. Such is the success of Giffgaff over the last few years, Three has creating its own version in Smartie, while Vodafone has launched Voxi.

That said, building the customer experience in rural areas of the UK will only add to the success of the telco, creating a more interesting proposition for customers which might have ignored the brand in the past. O2 has been swimming against the tide when it comes to convergence trends, choosing to focus exclusively on mobile, a decision which is increasingly looking justified.

UK Gov releases another £95 million for local full-fibre diets

Over the last year, the UK Government has been proudly preaching of massive investments into digital infrastructure. It’s questionable how much has made its way into reality, but an additional £95 million has been released today.

The Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund has announced £95 million has been made available to aid the roll-out of full fibre networks. Local authorities and public sector bodies around the UK can apply to the Local Full Fibre Networks Investment Panel to access the investment, which has been earmarked for rural areas, regions which have higher than average hurdles to 5G, the public sector and the development of local technology hubs. A plan to spend the money by March 2021 would have to be tabled to be applicable, with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport believing £95 million should be enough to fund roughly 20 projects.

“We recently set out our ambition for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033, and initiatives like this will be instrumental in achieving that,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “We want to hear from any local authority interested in taking part, so we can work closely with them on their plans to help them secure funding.”

The first two rounds of grant funding released £105 million into the economy, while this £95 million will deplete the funds bank account. The cash itself is part of the government’s expanded £31 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, £740 million has been reserved for digital infrastructure. How many cheques have been signed so far is unknown, though questions still remain whether £740 million is a big enough commitment considering the lost ground on global leaders.

As it should be, emphasis will be placed on the proposals which plug the gaps from private sector investment. Rural regions are of course an area of interest here, as are regional technology hubs, potentially decreasing the reliance of the UK economy on London. The Midlands is an excellent example of this initiative, with the region targeting the development of electric cars and the components in creating its own hub of technical excellence.

For those interested in wrestling investment away from the fund, an email expressing interest would have to be sent by September 30 2018.

Government research suggests digital divide plans might actually be working

When you compare the digital divide to other countries around the world, it looks like nothing more than a minor crack in the UK. That said, it is still there and new research suggests it is getting smaller.

Before you give the mish-mash-of-no-one-wants-jobs Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport too much credit, you have to bear in mind this is research which has been funded and influenced by the department itself. That said, government initiatives do seem to have spurred on the lethargic Openreach/BT into action in the countryside taking the number of households which are able to access superfast broadband across the UK to 95.39%.

“Our rollout of superfast broadband across the UK has been the most challenging infrastructure project in a generation but is one of our greatest successes,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “We are reaching thousands more homes and businesses every week, that can now reap the clear and tangible benefits that superfast broadband provides. We are helping to ensure the downfall of the digital divide.”

In terms of closing the digital divide, it is worth reminding ourselves every now and then what this actually means. It is more than simply cat videos streaming faster than a laser pointer on the carpet, but accessibility to education and employment opportunities. With businesses increasingly reliant on the internet for everyday processes such as cloud-based services and infrastructure, connectivity decides whether a company opens up an office in one place or another, or the competitiveness of a regional. Functional companies create jobs, which dominos success throughout the local economy.

The initiative was first launched 2010/11 in response to concerns commercial deployment of superfast broadband would fail to reach areas which were not deemed commercially attractive. Backed by £530 million of subsidies (and an additional £250 in 2015), telcos were enticed to rollout out relevant infrastructure, though early years were plagued with claims BT was rebuilding its monopoly with public funds as it won the majority of early contracts. While the criticism of BT’s dominance continues to be an issue for some, it is worth noting £500 million in subsidies has been returned to the public purse due to uptake being higher than expected.

In terms of the impact on local firms, the report estimates postcodes benefitting from subsidised coverage saw employment rise by 0.8% and turnover grow by 1.2% in response to improved infrastructure. This has resulted in an additional 49,000 jobs for local economies, plus an additional £9 billion in annual revenues. When looking at productivity gains, better connectivity essentially means each employee makes an additional £1,390 per year on average for the firm.

Government Table One

As you can see from the tables above, the ‘other’ regions are still growing at a faster rate, though you have to question how big the digital divide would be today without the telcos being ‘encouraged’ to invest in rural areas with government subsidies. Growth is a positive, as it would be a fair assumption the statistics would be in decline without improved connectivity.

Education and health and social work were the sectors which really benefited here (worker turnover increased 4.7% and 3.7% respectively), though subsidised coverage raised turnover per worker in the manufacturing sector by around 0.8%. With improved connectivity now in place in the manufacturing space the opportunity to demonstrate further benefits through IoT and smart-factory environments is much more apparent. The manufacturing segment might be a slow-burner with the next wave of technological advancements proving to be the gamechanger.

With a benefit to cost ratio of £1.96 per £1 of gross public sector spending, it is difficult to argue with the success here. Yes, the numbers could be better, though as the report states the net benefits of the programme does not include any value associated with the future use of the infrastructure, you could conclude the value has been considerably underplayed. Governments do not often earn plaudits, but this does genuinely seem like an initiative which has been well managed, delivering on the stated promises.

Work is not complete on closing the digital divide, the South West for instance is still underserved for example, though it is difficult to argue that the government hasn’t done a bad job overall.

US appeals court tells FCC that poor people are allowed broadband

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has lost a skirmish in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals following moves from the watchdog attempting to remove a broadband subsidy for low income families in Tribal areas.

The removal of the Lifeline subsidy has been a contentious decision from Pai and his Republican cronies leading the FCC since it was announced in November last year, though the courts have now blocked it. While there has been strong resistance from the likes of Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn (now former), this is a notable win for Democratic leaning politicians and public servants, as the momentum has been favouring the Pai movement in recent months.

“Petitioners have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their arguments that the facilities-based and rural areas limitations contained in the Order are arbitrary and capricious,” the order states. “In particular, petitioners contend that the Federal Communications Commission failed to account for a lack of alternative service providers for many tribal customers.”

While the FCC proved there would not be a ‘mass disconnection’ in the regions should the subsidy be removed, the court has pointed to a lack of competition in the region. These are areas which are traditionally underserved, with the subsidy going some way to aid connectivity, as a watchdog and public-funded organization, surely this is one of the fundamental objectives; to assist and serve US citizens where necessary; clearly Pai disagrees.

The original plan from the FCC was to ban the subsidy from being used to purchase broadband services from resellers, though it could be used with network owners. Removing this $25 subsidy would have left the applicants with only a $9.25 option, which the courts did not deem sufficient. Without the option of purchasing services through resellers, competition would be drastically reduced and the opportunity for market abuse would be rife.

The case, which was initially brought to the courts by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and Oceti Sakowin Tribal Utility Authority, while also being supported by several non-profits, creates a useful precedent in those opposing the Pai reign. Although Pai is seemingly attempting to scale back all regulation, intervention and market influence at the FCC, the coalition suing were able to demonstrate changes to the FCC’s Lifeline programme would result in people losing telecom service; Pai opponents throughout the US will be looking at this case with much interest.

One interesting point which can be taken from the ruling is that less regulation and market intervention will not necessarily lead to investment.

“Furthermore, the Federal Communications Commission has not shown that the historical record supports its assertion that these new requirements will encourage development of communications infrastructure in underserved areas, thus preventing mass disconnection.”

The principles of the Republican leaning officials is less regulation offers market freedoms and room to innovate. Removing red tape would actually encourage telcos to invest in the infrastructure the country so desperately needs, though it seems the court does not agree with this theory. This rhetoric has fuelled the scaling back of power and influence at the FCC, though such comments from the court will certainly take a bit of the wind out of the Pai sails.

Rural wireless group calls bullsh*t on Verizon coverage claims

The Rural Wireless Association (RWA) has filed a request with the FCC asking the watchdog to investigate Verizon’s 4G coverage claims, sniffing out some creative communications from the telco.

The filing itself requests the FCC investigate the 4G LTE coverage claimed by Verizon and require re-filing of the company’s data to correct what the RWA believe is overstated coverage. The request comes off the back of an investigation launched by a coalition of radio frequency engineering firms, which believes Verizon’s claimed 4G LTE coverage is grossly overstated.

“Commission review of Verizon’s claimed coverage is critical,” said RWA General Counsel Carri Bennet. “Our participating small rural carrier members estimate that it will cost them each $1 million dollars or more to complete the challenge process – a figure that could be dramatically reduced and used for deployment of rural broadband services if Verizon’s reported coverage was accurate.”

While we in the UK might complain about not being able to download cat videos at lightning speed while strolling the beautiful, dramatic and unrivalled Welsh countryside, our pains seem minimal in comparison to some regions of the US. Such is the vast scale of the country, the digital divide between rural and urban environment isn’t even the same conversation.

The farmers and trekkers might not be the most commercially attractive customers to US telcos, but it has become somewhat of a political issue in recent years. Equality is a US principle, therefore the telcos have to give as much attention to corn as concrete, and should you believe the press releases, they certainly do. This is where this filing could be an issue for Verizon; it could turn into political embarrassment with the telco undermining politicians who are claiming the digital divide is a priority.

Another issue is down to funding. The Mobility Fund Phase II (MFII) funding is an initiative which provides cash injections for smaller, regionalised telcos assistance in covering not-spots. Should Verizon have overstated its 4G coverage, covering up not-spots, the FCC would be less inclined to support the smaller telcos in these regions with additional funding.

As part of the investigation, Panhandle Telephone challenged the claim Verizon covers almost all of the 14,778.47 square kilometre Oklahoma Panhandle area. Using information which is available to the general public, as well as the aid of a newer modelling tool and the FCC-adopted 5 Mbps downlink standard, Panhandle Telephone claims Verizon in reality covers less than 50% of the area.

An investigation by the FCC could be an embarrassing episode for Verizon, though it could snowball into a PR disaster. If claims are found to be true, the telco isn’t just embarrassing politicians or ignoring farmers, it is a multi-billion dollar heavyweight stealing money from the pockets of minnows in the industry, a segment which is apparently the foundation of the US economy.

US Government says the digital divide is narrowing

A report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) suggests the concerning digital divide in the US is narrowing.

The NTIA, a division of the US Department of Commerce, surveyed various users across the US, unearthing a couple of interesting statistics. For instance, more households had a mobile data plan than wired broadband service in 2017, and for the first time since NTIA began tracking use of different types of computing devices, tablets were more popular than desktop computers.

Looking more specifically at the digital divide, for users living in households with family incomes below $25,000 per year, internet usage increased to 62% from 57% in the previous year. Households earning $100,000 or more showed no change during this period at 86%, and while the gap is narrowing, it is still concerning. Addressing the digital divide has been a priority for successful White House administrations, and while progress is gradually being made, perhaps some would hope it would be accelerating at a greater pace.

Maybe this is the point in the development of the digital community where penetration will hit the levels where you could safely assume is fairly distributed throughout the demographics. The price of data is tumbling, partly thanks to T-Mobile US reinvigorating the race to the bottom, while stagnation in device innovation means second-hand or older models can effectively deliver the same technological experience. Mobile is becoming cheaper and taking over, which will open doors to many who have been excluded from the digital bounties.

Again, looking at the statistics, 64% of users used a smartphone across 2017, compared to 53% in 2015, while tablet use increased to 32% from 29% during the same period. Wearables grew from 8% in 2017 from 1% two years earlier. Those living in higher income households are of course more likely to have multiple devices, though family incomes below $25,000 per year on average used 1.34 different types of devices.

The digital divide in the US is still too large, but the trends are heading the right direction. The introduction of technologies to continue to make the delivery of 4G more cost efficient, as well as the upcoming 5G euphoria will only add momentum to the democratization of digital, but it is not mission accomplished just yet.

Divide by device Divide by income Divide by race

Who are the haves and have nots of the internet?

The UN has released its latest report regarding the presence and influence of the internet around the world, and some of the statistics are a little bit surprising.

Let’s start at the top of the list with internet penetration. Western Europe tops the charts with 79.6%, then comes CIS with 67.7% and the Americas with 65.9%. These three regions sit above the world average, which is perhaps unsurprising, with Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa sitting below at 43.9%, 43.7% and 21.8%.

Aside from the massive gulf between the have’s at the top and the have not’s at the bottom, another interesting area is the America’s; 65.9% is not a high number. I mean this is region which contains the USA, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Considering the influence it has at the business end of the technology world, it is surprising. We always knew there was a digital divide in the states, the rural broadband movements have brought attention to this, but this is quite a shortfall.

Looking more specifically at the unconnected statistics, the US also features here, but this is as a total figure as opposed to percentage of population; its slightly misleading. In terms of the number of unconnected individuals, India hits the top of the list with 660.19 million, China is in second with 362.28 million and Nigeria is in third with 101.68 million.

“If we don’t engage the whole world, we are at risk of a two-tiered internet system, where those with fast services reap the benefits in terms of education, opportunity and investment, while those without broadband are left further behind,” said Marc Agnew, VP of ViaSat Europe.

“As anyone who has lived through the rise of the internet will explain, there’s a big difference between being able to send an email over a dial-up connection, and being able to take advantage of all the services a truly high-speed broadband connection offers. For instance, Venezuela, with an average internet connection speed of 1.8mbps in 2016, will have a very different experience to South Korea, with an average speed of over 26mbps.”

The difference between having the internet and not having it will soon become apparent. Right now, it is not going to be a crippling factor; yes it will make a difference but it will not define an economy. If we’re being completely honest, looking at the state of play, we haven’t nailed this digital economy thing yet, but that will only take time. We’ll get there eventually.

The majority of people would have already known about the digital divide, but it is always worth reminding ourselves about the challenge ahead. You never know, maybe projects like Facebook’s Aquila will turn out to be more than just a PR stunt.