Interview: Europasat on rural broadband, BDUK and the future of satellite broadband

Broadband coverage varies wildly across the UK, some areas enjoying the choice of multiple providers and technologies (including FTTH for a lucky few) while other locations have a far more limited selection. Rural communities in particular suffer from a lack of options and very slow speeds.

But there is one solution which can provide service no matter where you are. Satellite broadband beams the internet down from space and works absolutely anywhere. Even those in the most remote areas can get a fast connection, and it doesn't need a phone line.

The government has recently woken up to the potential of this technology and is now offering subsidised connections as part of the BDUK project.

One of the leading names in satellite broadband is Europasat, which distributes services right across the UK and Europe. We recently spoke to Chief Executive Officer Andrew Walwyn to find out more about the challenges facing satellite internet providers and why satellite broadband may be crucial for plugging broadband not-spots.

Broadband Genie: How important do you believe technologies like satellite broadband are for the UK today and in the future?

Andrew Walwyn: Ofcom itself has said: “Satellites… have a role in meeting this growing demand in the hardest-to-reach premises in the UK, and satellite broadband is one of the options for fulfilling the Government’s ambition to make 10 Mbit/s broadband universally available.”

Satellite broadband is a solution sale for consumers and businesses that do not have access to fibre broadband – the consumers and businesses that will get fibre at some point can take advantage of our fibre guarantee, whereby they can leave their contract with us without penalty once they get fibre in their area. However it’s important to be clear on the fact that there are a great number of consumers and businesses that will never get fibre – for this market our product is life changing.

BBG: What would you say is the biggest challenge currently facing satellite broadband providers?

AW: The biggest challenge is definitely perception – some people have never heard of satellite broadband so they don’t know that there is a viable broadband option available for them – for others they still associate satellite broadband with how the technology performed five years ago, they don’t realize that the service has greatly evolved and now they can have a fantastic 30Mbps service with generous data allowances.

The other challenge is confusion on if and when they may get fibre broadband. A lot of communities are being paid lip service that they will get fibre, so they think it’s best to wait. Unfortunately for them it’s a forgone conclusion that this process will either take much longer than expected, or may never happen at all. This is where our fibre guarantee becomes incredibly attractive – it’s a win/ win, they don’t have to wait any longer and if the fibre does actually arrive, they can easily switch across.

BBG: Europasat provides satellite internet services across Europe. How do you feel the UK is performing when it comes to getting rural areas connected compared to other countries?

AW: Other countries have definitely been more successful with their rural broadband schemes – the scheme is more transparent and subsidies are better publicized and then more easily implemented.

The problem with the UK’s approach to rural broadband is that it is driven commercially – so the people who had the worst broadband are still facing the same issues. Other countries start with the worse affected and then work backwards. In the UK the onus has been on pushing out fibre-to-the-cabinet broadband, which has been quite successful but those people that will never receive this haven’t been informed.

BBG: The government recently confirmed they will introduce a new Universal Service Obligation (USO) that should give everybody the legal right to a broadband connection which delivers a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbps by 2020. What’s Europasat’s opinion of this commitment?

AW: From our perspective the USO is great because it just isn’t feasible without satellite broadband. We can deliver 30Mbps to any property in the UK, so with our technology this USO is fully satisfied.

BBG: It has been suggested that BT and Openreach should be split. What is your opinion of this, and would it affect Europasat?

AW: Obviously we aren’t affected by the pricing and bureaucracy involved the wholesale fixed line telco market, which we understand can frustrate terrestrial providers. However, we do think that if Openreach was opened up then it would have to be more industry-focused with the data that it holds, which would be great for us. In other countries the information exists on which properties will never get fibre – which means we can get in touch with the right people with a solution that they can immediately order. We would love to have this information from Openreach and would encourage this level of transparency if it is split from BT – obviously it isn’t forthcoming at the moment!

BBG: Demand for bandwidth heavy online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Instant have grown dramatically in the last few years. Do you see the growing demand for bandwidth as an issue for satellite broadband providers where packages generally have data caps?

AW: Many of our customers use streaming services. It’s worth noting that we do tell customers that if they download programs at non-peak times then it’s free - plus, as the cost of data is falling, many customers find that if they need to upgrade they are getting more data for the same amount of money. In the US they are Trialing unlimited packages – we definitely think that this will be coming to the UK in the future.
BBG: What type of customer signs up for a package with Europasat? Are you able to provide any insights into how customers use their satellite connection (gaming, web browsing, streaming)?

AW: The only common denominator is that our customers tend to have only had access to less than 2Mbps before they joined us. Our UK customers include city centre properties in broadband not-spots, rural towns and villages, rural businesses, plus many businesses choose to install our satellite broadband as a back-up service, so they never have to worry about broadband outages.

BBG: It was recently reported that only a handful of people had made use of the government's subsidised satellite broadband scheme. Do you know why this might be? Should the government be doing more to make people aware of the scheme?

It’s important to note that there are four subsidised satellite broadband schemes currently running across the UK - the Welsh Broadband Cymru Voucher Scheme, the BDUK National Scheme, the Better Rural Broadband (BDUK) Funding Pilot and standalone county pilot schemes. The take-up on the Welsh scheme has been very encouraging, but the BDUK National Scheme has had a low take-up, which many agree is because this program is much more complicated and hasn’t been very well publicised.

In an ideal world we would like a consistent scheme ran across the UK, and BT Openeach would provide the data of the properties in the UK that aren’t ever going to get fibre, so they could be contacted directly and given information of the scheme.