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Report Warns of Underinvestment in Rural Connectivity and Skills

Wednesday, January 12th, 2022 (12:01 am) - Score 552
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The latest State of Rural Services report, which is being published today by Rural England CIC, has warned that many people in the country’s small towns and villages still face being “digitally excluded and locked out of key services” due to an “underinvestment in rural connectivity” (e.g. broadband and mobile infrastructure) and skills.

The report finds that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of “digital-first lifestyles” across England’s rural areas and quickened the move away from in-person activity (e.g. more people are working from home), with 53% of rural residents expecting to make less use of town centres after the pandemic than they did before.

For example, the report looked at the post-March 2020 period and found that 93% of rural residents increased their use of online services since the pandemic, while over half started using some online services for the first time, for clothing and food shopping. Everything from banking to health (GPs etc.) saw a big increase in online activity.

The catch is that broadband and mobile connectivity typically improves at a much slower pace in rural vs urban areas. According to the report, one in six rural residents cannot access “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) and over half cannot get an indoor 4G mobile connection on all four networks.

However, one catch here is that they’re using data from Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2020 report, rather than last month’s significantly more recent 2021 edition (here). The latest 2021 report notes that 83% of rural premises are covered by a 30Mbps+ fixed broadband ISP network (98% in urban areas), while individual mobile operators provide indoor 4G coverage to 69-80% of premises in rural areas, compared with 94-98% of urban premises.

Brian Wilson, Report Author and Chairman of Rural England CIC, said:

“These findings suggest that the pandemic may have left people living in rural England facing a Catch-22 situation. The growing appetite for online services is no bad thing, but it will have significant consequences for those rural residents facing digital exclusion due to lack of online skills and connectivity.

Rural areas, which already face disadvantage, needs to be supported to ensure that businesses and communities can thrive and are not left behind as the nation builds back following the pandemic. With the upcoming levelling up programmes, it is vital that public policies and programmes are rural proofed.”

Despite the initial focus on “poor” digital connectivity, the report itself doesn’t appear to make any specific recommendations for improving broadband and mobile services. The good news is that there are several programmes running that aim to tackle such issues, although it remains to be seen how much of an impact they’ll really have and over how many years it will take to get there.

The Government’s £5bn Project Gigabit programme naturally aims to tackle some of this by expanding gigabit-capable broadband across the final 20% of predominantly rural premises. The project aims to ensure that such speeds reach at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025 and then universal coverage by 2030 (here), albeit somewhat dependent upon how the industry responds (i.e. so far only £1.2bn has been released).

On top of that, the £1bn Shared Rural Network project aims to push geographic 4G coverage up to 95% by the end of 2025 (here) and has recently been making some good early progress (here). However, mobile coverage programmes for rural areas have a nasty history of under delivering, so it remains to be seen how this pans out. Lest we forget that it helps if such communities don’t object every time an operator wants to build a new mast.

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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
2 Responses
  1. Optimist says:

    One of the report’s recommendations is “an online sales levy”.

    No thanks. We are already paying more tax than the five years after WW2 and much of the money is mis-spent.

    1. PoliticalGenius says:

      Nonsense! Even the illegal parties at Number 10 during lockdown clearly had people bringing their own drink so not a penny of taxpayer . Every one of those PPE and Track and Trace contracts are without reproach and have resulted in no shortages whatsoever. Every petty is accounted for and has led to everyone being better off!

      I’ll see myself out…

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