Some of the UK’s most remote homes and businesses will be connected to better broadband, beamed to earth by satellite, as part of new government plans to ensure everyone can access fast and reliable coverage wherever they live or work.

A trial officially launched today will see the extent to which satellites can be used to deliver high-speed connections to more than a dozen ‘very hard to reach’ locations – the less than one per cent of sites which are too difficult to upgrade via expensive physical cables in more extreme locations such as mountainous areas or small islands.

A 12th century abbey in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, a scout camping site in Snowdonia, a Lake District mountain rescue base and other remote premises will have equipment installed that allows them to link up to a satellite orbiting the globe and benefit from broadband up to ten times faster than is currently available to them.

Following the trials, the government will consider the viability of using satellite technology to connect very hard to reach homes and businesses across the UK.

It comes as the government signs its biggest contract under its £5 billion programme to roll out gigabit-capable connections to hard-to-reach areas, Project Gigabit. The £108 million contract, awarded to Northern Ireland-based provider Fibrus, will connect up to 60,000 rural homes and businesses in Cumbria which might have otherwise missed out on upgrades to faster gigabit speeds.

Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan said:

High-speed broadband beamed to earth from space could be the answer to the connectivity issues suffered by people in premises stuck in the digital slow lane.

Ensuring everyone can get a quality internet connection is crucial to our levelling up plans and these trials aim to find a solution to the prohibitively high cost of rolling out cables to far-flung locations.

We are also today kicking off plans for our biggest broadband build to date as we announce another £100 million is being spent as part of our Project Gigabit programme.

The Cumbria contract is the latest in a flurry of deals signed under Project Gigabit in recent weeks to level up the north of England, with projects now underway to connect thousands of hard-to-reach premises in Northumberland and Teesdale.

In a further broadband boost for rural areas, the government will triple the value of vouchers available under the Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme. From early next year, eligible homes and businesses will be able to apply for up to £4,500 to cover the costs of a gigabit-capable connection, up from £1,500 for homes and £3,500 for businesses previously, which will enable broadband providers to reach further into rural areas where the build costs are higher.

​​Gigabit-capable broadband networks are fast and fit for the future, allowing communities to work, stream and browse seamlessly with none of the disruptions associated with ageing copper networks.

Entire families will be able stream movies, TV and video games in new high quality 4K and 8K definition onto multiple devices at the same time with no slowdowns in speed.

It will pave the way for revolutionary new technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality and more internet-connected smart appliances in the home and the workplace to make our lives easier and more productive.

And it will fuel our innovators and wealth creators, boosting growth, enabling anyone to start-up and run a business of any size from anywhere in the UK – from the Highlands, to the Norfolk Broads and the Welsh Valleys to the Lake District.

More than 72 per cent of the UK can access gigabit connections, up from just 6 per cent in early 2019, thanks to the government’s plan to drive investment in rollout and bust the barriers holding back the industry from doing so at full pace.

Satellite broadband trials

The initial wave of trial sites announced today includes:

  • Rievaulx Abbey, founded in 1132, in North Yorkshire Moors National Park, is one of the most complete of England’s abbey ruins. The project will improve connectivity at the site and is expected to help visitors and researchers engage with educational content relating to the ancient monument.
  • Wasdale Head in the Lake District will be connected to explore how better broadband can improve operations in communication ‘blackspot’ zones for mountain rescue team radio and global positioning services.
  • Snowdonia National Park will see two sites connected: the base of the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation (Sefydliad Achub Mynydd Dyffryn Ogwen) to support their life-saving operations and Ty Cornel, an outdoor activity centre in Crafnant Valley managed by Scouts Cymru to help improve safety for wardens and the public traversing the isolated 25 acre site as well as enabling new educational resources for visiting school, university or scout groups.

Other locations have been identified around the UK, and discussions for further trial sites are  ongoings, including small island locations in England, Scotland and Wales. As well as testing the technical capability of the satellites, the trial will assess what benefits faster connections will bring to these remote premises.

Andrea Selley, Territory Director for the North at English Heritage said:

We are so pleased to be part of this trial and want to thank the DCMS for their support. Rievaulx Abbey nestles within a beautiful but remote setting so this new satellite service will ensure better connectivity for our visitors and staff.

The initial wave of sites are being supported by equipment supplied by Starlink, given the readiness and availability of its technology. DCMS continues to discuss the capability of other solutions and services with suppliers, including the use of other providers such as Oneweb at more complex sites..

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are positioned around 550 – 1,000km above the earth’s surface and, in contrast to larger geostationary satellites, travel along their own orbit. The fact they are closer to earth than previous generations of satellites makes more applications possible, including video calls and real-time collaboration while also making activities like web browsing much smoother. The limited ground infrastructure required means they can provide additional resilience to critical networks in remote, often dangerous, environments.

Recent tests have shown that in many locations these satellites can deliver speeds of up to 200 megabits per second, well above the speeds capable via copper cables commonly used in hard-to-reach areas today.

Project Gigabit: Cumbria

The £108 million contract awarded to Fibrus will cover rural towns, villages and hamlets across the region from Grasmere to Gilsland. Now the contract has been signed, Fibrus will begin construction of the network immediately with the first connections anticipated by the spring.

The investment in Cumbria will also spark new apprenticeship and employment opportunities in the county. Following today’s announcement, Fibrus is set to create at least 90 apprenticeships over the next three years – covering a range of roles from underground and overhead cabling to surveying – and invest £50,000 to establish an apprentice training academy near Penrith.

More areas including Cornwall, Hampshire, Shropshire & Telford, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk are all in line for contract awards by summer 2023.

Dominic Kearns, CEO of Fibrus, said:

Fibrus considers it a privilege to deliver a transformative project for Cumbria which will change the lives of people living in rural and regional areas. Fibrus is committed to supporting local communities, ensuring any work undertaken in our name supports apprenticeships and allows more people to reap the benefits of full fibre.

This win helps us further our mission and commitment to bring fast, reliable and affordable broadband to all.

Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme

The Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme ensure rural communities and businesses, which commercial suppliers are not planning to reach, can get more immediate help with the costs of installing a gigabit-capable broadband connection.

Businesses or residents that are eligible for gigabit vouchers can access the scheme through a  registered supplier. Suppliers can develop a project proposal to connect rural communities where there is demand for upgrades and then request vouchers on their behalf. Funding is only committed when a voucher requested has been approved by DCMS.

Overall, more than 111,000 vouchers have been issued through the government’s vouchers schemes, and to date, more than 77,000 of these vouchers have been used to connect premises to gigabit-capable broadband.

The announcement comes ahead of Small Business Saturday, which shines a light on the 5.5 million small businesses registered in the UK. The boost to the voucher scheme will directly support small businesses in rural areas across the country when it comes in early next year.

Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, James Cartlidge, said:

Breaking barriers and driving competition in the telecoms sector will help deliver fast and reliable gigabit broadband to all corners of the UK.

Using innovative methods to beam broadband to isolated areas, alongside this latest Project Gigabit deal to level up the north of England, will connect thousands more hard-to-reach premises, helping people get and stay connected”.

Source: Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and The Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP


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