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Cross Party MPs Examine UK Rural Broadband and Mobile Divide

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021 (10:20 am) - Score 576
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The All Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse, which is an informal cross-party group formed by UK MPs and members of the House of Lords, has begun a new inquiry that will explore whether the government has “given up” on bridging the digital divide (mobile and broadband connectivity).

At the end of 2020 fixed line “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) coverage reached around 97% of UK premises and gigabit-capable (1000Mbps+) networks hit 37% (here). The latter is likely to reach c.60% by the end of this year, thanks largely to the combination of Virgin Media’s DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade to their existing hybrid fibre coax network and the wider commercial rollout of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) by multiple operators.

Meanwhile, Ofcom’s recent Connected Nations 2020 report found that between 79% to 85% of the United Kingdom’s landmass can access a 4G network if you look across all operators, which jumps to 98-99% when looking at outside premises (largely reflective of population level, rather than geographic, coverage).

The new inquiry, which doesn’t appear to have a web page yet (at least we couldn’t find one), is thus being established to examine why rural productivity is 18% below the national average and to identify solutions that could help bridge the divide (between rural and urban areas) in order to boost the rural economy in a post-Covid world.

The new inquiry won’t just examine digital connectivity, it’ll also look at whether the planning system is fit for purpose. The other items being examined are issues of land use (can it be better managed), skills (improving the capability of rural workers), tax (is it providing benefits or creating too many barriers) and government process (do they help or hinder the development of rural policy).

Julian Sturdy MP, co-Chair of the Inquiry, said:

“There are over 500,000 rural businesses across England and Wales, and together they form the backbone of the rural economy.

It is critical to understand why this productivity disparity exists between urban and rural areas, and to explore meaningful ideas for how it can be eradicated. We encourage rural organisations and businesses to get in touch with their ideas.”

The related APPG is currently chaired by Conservative MP Julian Sturdy and includes a further five Conservative members, as well as two members from Labour and one from Plaid Cymru. Suffice to say that the structure seems likely to ensure that their final report probably won’t be too critical of Government policy, although we hope it will still be able to come up with some useful recommendations.

Mark Bridgeman, President of the CLA, said:

“Closing the rural productivity gap would add £43bn to the economy – creating hundreds of thousands of skilled jobs in communities everywhere. This would be on top of the £261bn the rural economy already contributes to the national economy.

The reasons for the countryside’s lower productivity are complex. Key contributors are poor digital connectivity, an outdated planning systems, unnecessary bureaucracy and decades of underinvestment which have resulted in fewer opportunities for those living in rural areas. But none of these can be improved without political engagement.”

In terms of digital connectivity, we suspect the Government will point toward their existing progress in this area, such as their new £5bn Project Gigabit programme, which aims to further improve the picture for gigabit speed connectivity by using state aid to target connectivity improvements toward the final 20% of hardest to reach premises (i.e. helping to extend gigabit coverage to at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025).

Lest we also forget about the new £1bn Shared Rural Network project, which aims to push geographic 4G coverage to 95% by the end of 2025 (here) and has recently been making some good early progress on its first phase of work (here and here). However, mobile coverage programmes for rural areas have a history of under delivering, so it remains to be seen how this one pans out.

We should add that various changes to regulation (Ofcom) and legislation (planning, ECC etc.) are currently being made in order to support the aforementioned programmes by cutting red tape and encouraging more private investment. But as with the SRN, the proof will be in whether these efforts can all deliver upon their promises.

Finally, there have been a number of recent cross-party inquiries into the Government’s broadband and mobile policy, so it’s unclear what the new one will be able to add that hasn’t already been said. The most recent example came from the DCMS Select Committee, which found significant concerns with deliverability of the gigabit target (here).

The Country Land & Business Association (CLA), which represents 28,000 farmers, land managers and rural businesses in England and Wales, is supporting the new inquiry. Anyone wishing to submit evidence should email ruralpowerhouse@cla.org.uk and indicate the area(s) they wish to answer. The closing date is June 30th 2021.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
6 Responses
  1. Apple says:

    Seems like a complete waste of time, just something to show MP’s doing some actual work, when they’ll just agree with everything that’s already been done and change nothing.
    It talks of investment etc, but then advises they will just highlight other projects that cover the entire country, not just rural areas anyway. So I don’t expect anything to come from this. Maybe the MP’s will have some nice dinners out of it?

    As for 4G.. although mobile reception has improved, you still only have one option for coverage and speed and that’s EE themselves, the most expensive. And even then they can give poor signals even in city’s let alone the countryside.

    Who knows maybe they will produce some criticism? Doubt it though.

  2. Guy Cashmore says:

    In Devon overall only 91.5% have ‘superfast broadband’ access, this falls to 88.5% in the Torridge and West Devon constituency area where I live.

    Looking at the history, since mid 2018 progress has totally flat lined, rural residents do indeed think we have been ‘given up’ on.

    https://labs2.thinkbroadband.com/local/E14001000

    1. New_Londoner says:

      @Guy
      The issue that you have in Devon is with the incompetence of local politicians and the CDS project team. When you contrast the lack of progress made in Devon and Somerset with that in other counties, it is apparent that the problem is close to home. Perhaps the MPs should haul those responsible before the committee and hold them to account for their actions.

    2. Guy Cashmore says:

      @ New_Londoner

      Absolutely agree, the primary reason the for poor situation here is CDS, run by Devon & Somerset County Councils jointly.

      Keri Denton who is MD of CDS takes home over £100k a year for delivering this disaster, she should have been sacked years ago.

  3. Mark says:

    SRN won’t work here, too many objectors, up in arms everytime a mast application materialises, health and appearance as usual, wonder what the solution will be for the Nimby areas, like mine with thousands population, not half a dozen houses and a duck pond, and not really rural countryside.

    1. Rob says:

      The worst are the objectors that are willing to flesh out their case with baseless 5G heath concerns even though they don’t believe a word of it but it fits with what they want to achieve so peddle the nonsense. They just don’t want to have to see any kind of infrastructure because they are scared it might affect their house price.

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