The UK government-led roll-out of broadband to rural areas has been poorly managed and failed to consider a wide enough range of technologies to solve access problems in the maximum possible number of areas, one rural activist has told UKAuthority.com.
The statement came as network operator Vodafone announced this week it is offering 100 UK rural communities the opportunity to bid for installation of its Rural Open Sure Signal technology for mobile voice and data coverage. The move follows successful pilots of the technology in 12 communities, from Walls in the Shetland Islands to Newton St Cyres in Devon.
The system centres on 'femtocell' technology, already used inside buildings to boost individual subscribers' 3G coverage under the name Vodafone Sure Signal. The new version involves plugging units about the size of a standard set-top box into a broadband line in a local business or community centre, which then deliver public Vodafone 3G voice and data coverage to a small surrounding area.
Reliable mobile coverage is vital for sustainable rural development, according to one of the "village champions" involved in the pilot projects - Roger Cashmore, Parish Councillor at Newton St Cyres in Devon.
However Cashmore, who also happens to be a retired manager in the fibreoptic telecoms sector, told UKAuthority.com this week the government's national broadband roll-out had not made optimum use of a diverse range of technologies such as this new offering.
National access has been led by the Broadband Delivery UK team in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with funding flowing down through local authorities including, in his area, Devon County Council, Cashmore said.
"We are coming towards end of roll-out in our county, but they have been keeping their cards close to their chest and not announcing who is going to get the awards of fibreoptics. So everyone is on tenterhooks, not knowing 'are we going to get it or not going to get it'? It doesn't allow rural communities to investigate other options."
There have been other problems with the national programme's management including inaccurate information published online, he said. "They are just getting to grips with it at the time they are finishing the programme."
Vodafone Sure Signal technology is not a complete replacement for fibre-optic access in all remote areas, Cashmore said, because it needs existing landline access to set up the cells. However it is an example of a wide range of products which should be considered when deciding how to give rural communities the ability to communicate, Cashmore said.
"We have got fibreoptic broadband but it doesn't reach all the village, so if the powers that be had planned things better we could have used some of this already to fill in the gaps. This is part of the mix: it is not going to suit every community, but at least some options are being put on the table now."
There could be other technological options for rural broadband access that the UK may not be exploiting properly too such as satellite, Cashmore said
"I was driving in Spain a few months ago, and I was in the middle of the mountains in the Basque country and found I could access blisteringly fast broadband. I asked the woman who lived there how they were doing it, and she showed me a little antenna out the back - it was a satellite signal.
"That's been ruled out here as too expensive, but she was paying less than I was for her internet connection. Something is wrong somewhere."
Alick Grieve, "village champion" for another of the Vodafone pilot areas in Caldbeck, Cumbria said in a statement: "Staying connected on the move is taken for granted by most people in the UK and some find it surprising that rural communities like ours in Britain may still have very unreliable or no mobile coverage at all". As well as providing access to vital services to businesses and families, network coverage could boost rural economies by offering better connectivity to tourists and visitors, Grieve said.
"The positive impact of having strong, reliable mobile coverage in the village is reflected in the uplift for local business and happier tourists who can now stay in contact with their more urban lives while enjoying the beauty of our countryside."
Michael Tait, chief executive of small Scottish sea fishery business Shetland Mussels in the village of Walls, said: "I do understand that it's not always economically viable to invest in major infrastructure in remote areas - but at the same time our needs are the same as the rest of the country. In fact, given our location and the fact that our community is quite dispersed, we would argue that our need is even greater."
Vodafone is calling for communities to apply for the Rural Open Sure Signal programme with the support of their local MP. Applications close on 14 October, with the first communities to be connected by the end of the year.
Pictured: Pump Street, Newton St Cyres by Derek Harper/Geograph.org.uk
Vodafone Rural Open Sure Signal programme: www.vodafone.co.uk/rural