Broadband Feature: Local ISPs Prove Nimble

A host of broadband suppliers are offering superfast network connectivity on a limited basis in certain regions, towns and cities of the UK

Our feature this month looks at a few examples or regional broadband providers to illustrate their different business models and the diversity of supply.

The UK broadband market is fiercely competitive, and at first glance dominated by a small number of large suppliers delivering standardised fixed line connectivity packages on a national basis.

But scratch beneath the surface and you find a much bigger and more diverse market, one that sees a multitude of other broadband providers offering ADSL and fibre optic links on a smaller scale in specific towns, cities and even rural villages.

Some of these companies do not own their own network assets but package wholesale ADSL and fibre optic connectivity from BT and others under their own brand for customers. Others have taken advantage of local loop unbundling (LLU) to harness the last mile or local loop networks that connect BT’s telephone exchanges to the customer premise.

An even smaller number have established their own fibre and fixed wireless networks on a limited regional basis to give maximum control over the bandwidth they can offer to select groups of potential customers, and in some cases deliver broadband connections to remote areas where other networks are simply not available due to cost and geographical constraints.

The UK’s oldest regional broadband supplier is KC (formerly Kingston Communications and part of the KCOM Group) which has been offering broadband and other network services in Kingston upon Hull for some time. Because of the city’s geography across the Humber River, Hull has had its own telephone company since 1904 owing to the fact it was never absorbed into the Post Office Telephone Company, which later became BT. Hull is still not connected to BT’s network to this day, with KC supplying homes and offices in the city with broadband links which offer download speeds of anything between 50Gbit/s and 250Gbit/s.

As Britain’s biggest county, Yorkshire actually has one of the largest complements of regional broadband suppliers outside of London. Another is Origin Broadband, which runs a network stretching from Sheffield and Rotherham to Barnsley and Doncaster. The company offers various types of ADSL, fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) and leased line connectivity alongside colocation. Plus website hosting and remote backup services from its Sheffield Data Centre; with Doncaster racecourse, charities Heely Development, SAGE Greenfingers and marketing communications agency Grays amongst its business customers.

Like other regional broadband providers, Origin has been helped by financial incentives from central or local government designed to stimulate local economies. The South Yorkshire Connection Voucher scheme was launched in April 2015 as part of the Department for Culture Media and Sport’s Super Connected Cities initiative, for example. It provides grants of up to £3,000 to businesses to pay for their connection to superfast broadband links, funds which cover cabling, surveys, power installation and other deployment costs but not the monthly rental paid to providers such as Origin.

Elsewhere Rutland Telecom, a subsidiary of Oxford based Gigaclear, rolled out a fibre to the home (FTTH) network covering various villages in the county including Ebistock, Uppingham and Hambleton in 2013. Costwolds Broadband currently has a similar project for West Oxfordshire underway, partially paid for by various UK and European Union regional development funds.

Other companies target densely populated city centres where they know the cost of building out network infrastructure can be justified given the large pool of potential business and residential customers in the near vicinity. In London, Hyperoptic is a thriving fibre to the home (FTTH) provider which began by offering super speed 1Gbit/s connections to choice locations, such as blocks of flats in Wandsworth and other areas of the capital. Since then, the company has expanded to provide broadband services to similar residential and commercial sites in Glasgow, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and most recently Cardiff – in the latter case laying its own fibre into property developments where it anticipates most demand.

Even where established commercial broadband providers cannot immediately identify a sufficient return on their infrastructure investment, and/or government subsidies are not available, there is another way to get connected.

Broadband For the Rural North (B4RN) is a non-profit community lead organisation that started out delivering up to 1Gbit/s of fibre to the home (FTTH) broadband to homes and offices in eight parishes of rural Lancashire. The £initial 1.5m cost of installing the fibre network was funded by public subscriptions and loans from the local community, with the cable ducts dug by volunteers later given free broadband services for their trouble. By the end of last year the company claims to have connected over 1,000 properties, with 1500 customers and 800km of networks covering Lancashire, North Yorkshire and Cumbria.

Nor is UK broadband provision limited to wired connections. A broad portfolio of services based on fixed wireless networks using WiFi or mesh topologies have also sprung up, often in remote regions and areas where laying cables is either too difficult or too expensive.

The Reeth Rural Radio Net in Swaledale is one example of where the ‘digital divide’ is being bridged, as is Air Broadband in East Anglia and Boundless (formerly ilove broadband) in North East England (a full list can be found at ISPreview).

Of course we could go on. Solway Communications is a wireless broadband provider covering Carlisle and the surrounding area that also delivers 1Gbit/s fibre optic connections to local housing estates and business parks. Elsewhere, AB Internet specialises in wireless broadband and leased line replacement services in various regions of the UK, including North Wales, Anglesey and Scotland.

So while we have selected a few choice examples or regional broadband providers to illustrate their different business models and the diversity of supply, it is simply not possible to give every one operating in the UK a mention. But if you ever find yourself lamenting what looks like a market carve up between a handful of triple or quad play giants, think again – there are lots of alternatives for those willing to go out and find them.

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