The National Audit Office has warned that the government is two years behind schedule in its plan to bring broadband to 44 rural areas by 2015. It now looks like only nine of these areas will be linked up in that time.
A further problem highlighted in the NAO report is the lack of competition between commercial partners. BT is now the only service provider left in the bidding and has secured all of the 26 contracts awarded so far through the government’s rural broadband programme. According to the NAO, the company will pocket £1.2 billion in public funds as a result of the rural broadband roll out.
The government’s ambitious target was originally to provide 90% of UK households with speeds above 24 megabits per second and the remaining households a minimum of two. These targets suggest everyone will be connected with speeds of at least two mbps, the basic requirement for accessing many commonly used web applications. But the government has only gone so far as to aim for connecting “virtually” all communities to this standard, suggesting that some miss out on the initiative entirely.
Those living in rural areas are socially and physically isolated. They suffer from a lack of available transport, services and resources. While average incomes in these areas are often higher than in urban settings, rural communities are often characterised by older populations and some low income groups. Their problems are exacerbated by a lack of adequate broadband which disadvantages them particularly in terms of accessing businesss, healthcare, educational, recreational and government services. People who have no access to wired broadband services have to pay more for alternative broadband services or take matters into their own hands by providing the service for themselves.
Many rural residents now need online access for government services, such as to claim benefits or rural subsidies. A lack of broadband also disadvantages rural businesses, which often need superior digital accessibility to be competitive. Without high-speed access, some may relocate, causing depopulation in fragile rural economies.
Employees, too, are left unable to embrace new ways of working, such as working from home, which can lessen the burden of commuting. Finally, educational services are increasingly provided online and those with slow or no broadband are likely to miss out.
In a summary of broadband provision in the UK, Ofcom found that the lowest speeds are typically found in geographically remote and sparsely populated areas. These areas are the least economically viable targets for traditional service providers such as BT, because of their challenging physical geography.
The Broadband Delivery UK initiative notes that 5% of the population (mostly rural) will need to look beyond wired connectivity to alternate ISP technologies such as satellites or long distance wireless to implement broadband.
Poor broadband should not be a penalty that rural communities simply have to put up with. The sustainability of rural areas in the future depends upon better broadband access. Without this, people and businesses are forced to relocate, leaving empty spaces and more concentrated populations around overstretched urban areas.
Our research suggests that the digital divide between rural and urban areas is likely to widen, rather than narrow. As urban areas receive higher speeds through superfast broadband, rural areas get left further and further behind. East London businesses are already on the verge of enjoying speeds of 4 gbps.
A focus on upgrading speeds to 24 Mbps for 90% of households detracts from the need to provide at least a basic service to all who currently suffer poor or no broadband connectivity. It is important to prioritise broadband to these households, rather than increasing broadband speed to households in areas that already benefit from acceptable levels of service.