The Government must create a more flexible national minimum standard of broadband speed across the country to stop hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses from falling into a ‘digital twilight zone’, councils say.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents more than 370 councils, is launching a campaign, called Up to Speed, which aims to ensure every resident and business has access to faster broadband. This includes a new speed test app which enables users to test their broadband and compare it with other speeds in their area.
The campaign comes as latest research shows almost half of homes and businesses in rural areas cannot reach 10Mbps. Within two years, up to one million premises will still be without high-speed broadband.
The Government has pledged to give everybody the legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum download speed of 10Mbps by 2020. This speed roughly allows a family to watch a high-definition film and a catch-up tv programme and make a video call simultaneously. Currently, many remote rural areas have well below 2Mbps during key periods, such as when children get home, during school holidays and after 6pm.
Local authorities are playing a pivotal role in extending fast broadband to as many residents as possible. They are working with government to deliver superfast broadband to 95 per cent of premises by 2017, with some areas planning to reach even more.
The LGA says the Government’s pledge is a “significant step” in the right direction. However, councils are concerned that the fixed download speed of 10Mbps will quickly become outdated for households and businesses. What is needed, councils say, is for a new minimum standard which is a percentage of average national speeds. So when the national average of download speeds inevitably rises, the minimum standard will too. It is predicted the average household will require bandwidth of 19 Mbps by 2023.
The LGA has also called for clarification on whether the Government will specify a minimum performance of other elements which make for a good quality internet connection, such as upload speed. Upload speed is critical, for example, for small businesses, who need to send clients digital invoices, upload large files to the cloud, or publish high-resolution images on their customer-facing websites. Slow upload speeds means these processes often take considerably longer and lead to online systems crashing or “timing out”.
Good digital connectivity is a vital element of everyday life for residents and can help them cut household bills, shop online for cheaper goods, stay in touch with distant relatives, file tax returns and access their bank accounts. As central and local government services increasingly become ‘digital by default,’ more people will need to have faster and more reliable speeds.
Cllr Mark Hawthorne, chairman of the Local Government Association’s People and Places Board, said: “The government’s planned commitment to universal broadband across the country is a significant step forward. However there is a real concern that as the broadband needs among households and businesses in rural areas grow they will be left lagging behind because the national minimum standard quickly becomes obsolete.
“This is why it is paramount the minimum standard is constantly monitored and reviewed and it keeps track with national average speeds and that speeds users experience at peak times are still within minimum standards. Without this there is the real possibility of some areas – particularly in rural and hard-to-reach areas – falling into a digital twilight zone. Broadband is a major driver behind growth and jobs and this is about making areas attractive to businesses who wouldn’t otherwise locate there. Broadband is also a key way of enabling residents who are housebound to live independently.”