UK Government Leverages Satellite Broadband to Boost Rural Connectivity

21-06-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

In an effort to accelerate high-speed internet access to rural locations, the UK Government has announced a £7 million fund that will test out new methods for providing such access, including the use of satellite service providers. What challenges do rural locations face, what exactly will the government do, and is this really a worthwhile project?

What challenges do rural locations face?

Being far away from civilisation has its perks; there are very few neighbours, plenty of space, and the countryside is often untouched and of clean air. However, internet access in rural locations can be abysmal, and there are often very few options available for residents to get access to high-speed internet. But why is internet access so crucial in modern life?

Go back two decades, and a good majority of people didn’t need internet access to live out their daily lives. Sure, internet access was great for getting information, searching for sales, and keeping in contact with friends and family, but if the internet were to suddenly disappear, life itself wouldn’t come to a grinding halt. Bills were paid in cash or by direct debit, holidays were booked at travel agencies, letters were still a form of communication between people, and paychecks would be either directly deposited into bank accounts or handed as cash.

Fast forward to modern times, and things have dramatically changed. Internet services are used to power everyday transactions, bills, contracts, purchases, and communication, so much that not having Internet access could be considered cruel (this is why many believe that Internet access is a human right). As such, it quickly becomes apparent why having poor internet access in rural areas can put residents at a disadvantage.  

Of course, it is possible to install high-speed fibre optic systems in rural areas, but due to the low population density, the cost per household becomes orders of magnitude greater than households in urban areas. Thus, there is little economic interest for network companies to install the needed infrastructure, even when given grants from governments.

In a recent drive to support rural communities, the UK Government has announced a new £7 million fund. This fund aims to explore and test new ways to amalgamate satellite, wireless, and fixed-line internet connectivity. The goal is to provide reliable, high-speed internet access to remote areas for the first time, supporting farmers and tourism businesses.  

UK Government to trial £7m fund to explore new connection methods

Over the past few years, the UK Government has funded numerous projects and initiatives to try and improve internet access to rural locations, but so far, most of these projects have not achieved huge amounts of success. The reason why such projects struggle is often due to numerous factors, with one such example being poor planning (some projects would require an internet cable brought within a certain distance to a property but no obligation to connect that property). In fact, if there is one thing that is slowly being proved by these projects, it’s that wired internet connections to rural areas are probably not the most efficient method. 

In light of these challenges, the UK Government has recently announced a new £7 million fund that will aim to test different network technologies in rural environments. One technology being explored is cellular networks that can cover large areas, but as rural areas can be covered in forests and hills, cell towers need to have an extended range and be elevated. For more details about this new fund and the technologies it will explore, you can read the full announcement on the UK Government's website.

This report, titled 'Delivering for Rural England - The Second Rural Proofing Report', was prepared by the UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It provides a comprehensive analysis of the socio-economic conditions in rural areas and the government's efforts to address these issues. The report's findings are based on a wide range of data sources, including national statistics and surveys, making it a reliable source of information on this topic. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to ensure that rural communities are at the heart of all efforts to grow the economy. He stated, 'I have pledged to build a better future for people in this country, and our rural communities are right at the heart of that promise.'

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey highlighted the importance of these initiatives, stating, 'Driving investment in rural areas is a vital part of our vision for levelling up the country. The new Rural Prosperity Fund replaces the bureaucratic EU funding system - allowing us to work closely with local leaders to direct funding where it is most needed to close the rural productivity gap, create job opportunities and protect the English countryside.

The Rt Hon. the Lord Benyon, the minister responsible for rural affairs in England, emphasized the government's commitment to addressing these challenges, stating, 'We are addressing the rural productivity gap, levelling-up opportunities and outcomes, and looking after the rural areas and countryside that so many of us are proud to call home.

Castle Combe, England, is a charming Cotswold village known for its picturesque beauty.

 The charming village of Castle Combe, nestled in England's idyllic Cotswolds.

Another option that is being explored is satellite internet services. Satellite internet has existed for many years, but recent changes in this field (including the establishment of SpaceX Starlink) are making satellite internet more economically viable. While there is no guarantee that large constellations of small satellites will prove to be feasible, older concepts with physically larger satellites in higher orbits have already proven their worth. 

The fund will aim to try and improve internet services to 35,000 of the most remote locations in the UK, including the Shetland Islands, where all forms of access are virtually non-existent. By improving rural internet connectivity, the government hopes that emerging technologies such as autonomous drones, advanced crop monitoring, and wildlife conservation will benefit.

In addition to the £7 million fund, the UK Government has also announced the Rural England Prosperity Fund. This £110 million fund will be distributed to local authorities across England, supporting initiatives such as farm diversification, boosting rural tourism, and community infrastructure projects like electric vehicle charging stations. This fund will also support local businesses, stimulating growth and creating job opportunities in rural areas. 

However, it's important to note that the challenges in rural areas are multifaceted and complex. For example, the productivity rate in predominantly rural authorities has fallen behind the rest of the country. In 2001, it was 89% of the England average; in 2020, it was 81%. Furthermore, digital connectivity in rural areas lags behind urban areas. In terms of broadband in England, 70% of residential and commercial premises in urban areas have gigabit-capable broadband compared with 30% in rural areas. For more details about the challenges and disparities in rural areas, you can read the full report on the UK Government's website.

For more details about the Rural England Prosperity Fund and the initiatives it will support, you can read the full announcement on the UK Government's website

Is this project really worthwhile?

Improving internet access to those in rural areas is certainly a noble cause, as those without internet access are undoubtedly at a disadvantage. However, as society progresses, living in extremely remote areas becomes less practical, and trying to shovel massive amounts of funding into connectivity projects may just end up doing more harm than good.

Satellite internet services already exist, capable of providing decent bandwidth (albeit with latency issues). If those living in extremely remote areas want to have fast internet access, then it would make more sense for those individuals to either move somewhere with better connectivity or pay up for internet connectivity out of their own pocket.

In all likelihood, this £7 million fund will demonstrate what we already know about remote internet connectivity; cellular is great if you can get a tower close enough, wired broadband will always suck and be expensive, and satellite internet can provide every household with all the bandwidth they could ever need, except that Starlink will likely fail and established satellite technologies will have significant latencies.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.