If we are to bridge the digital divide in the UK, Government must remain committed to competition in the market

Perception is important. At a recent appearance before the House of Lord Digital and Communication Committee, Baroness Featherstone remarked she that she had never heard of Altnets. Lady Featherstone was questioning Helen Wylde the CEO of Alternative Network Provider, Wildanet, who was giving evidence to their inquiry on digital exclusion and the cost of living. 

Digital exclusion is a major problem in the United Kingdom, with millions lacking access to reliable and affordable internet connections. While many efforts have been made to close the digital divide – notably through the Government’s flagship £5bn Project Gigabit programme, delays have resulted in stagnation. Only six contracts announced under the programme have been announced. 

Crucial to injecting some competition into the markets, and importantly choice for consumers is the notion that Altnets offer an alternative to the large, established telecoms companies. They provide more choice, lower prices, and better service to customers.

One of the key advantages of Altnets is their ability to adapt to local needs and conditions. They can tailor their networks to serve specific communities or business sectors. In remote areas these companies work closely with stakeholders to address the unique challenges facing these communities, such as terrain, weather, or other environmental factors – prior to rolling out the network. 

As Helen Wylde put it in Parliament “the job needs specialist Altnets with the local knowledge, specialist skills, and the sheer tenacity and determination to do whatever it takes, whether this is abseiling down cliffs or spanning streams to bring broadband to those most remote communities”. 

One way that policymakers can help support Altnets is by creating a more level playing field for competition. This might involve relaxing rules around spectrum allocation, allowing Altnets to access more of the radio frequencies that are necessary for wireless networks to operate. 

Another important step would be to promote greater collaboration between Altnets and other stakeholders in the telecommunications industry. In the recent House of Lords Committee, Baroness Beeston asked why providers do not collaborate more to end digital exclusion. The silence was pretty stark. Provides should establish partnerships – both large and small telecoms companies, allowing the former to leverage the latter’s existing infrastructure and resources. 

By providing targeted, innovative, and affordable services, ANPs can help bridge the digital divide and bring the benefits of the digital age to more people and communities across the country. Policymakers and industry stakeholders must work together to support and foster the growth of this critical sector, ensuring that no one is left behind in the digital revolution.Without access to gigabit capable broadband, long-standing social and economic challenges will be exacerbated, economic growth restrained, and individuals stopped from reaching their full potential.  It will also make the daily imperatives or “moments that matter” in modern life harder to achieve.

Kieran Bergholcs, Senior Account Director

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