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Sources are Ofcom (2018), NFU (2016) and Rural England/SRUC (2017).
Rural businesses say their top three benefits from digital adoption are:
Broadband and mobile networks are improving and rural business adoption of digital technologies demonstrates real potential. However, there are significant challenges which should be addressed by a Rural Strategy. They are:
The Rural Services Network believes that the following initiatives should be included within a Rural Strategy for a digitally connected countryside:
→ A USO that is fit for purpose: in the short term, the planned introduction (in 2020) of a broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) is welcome. However, the proposed USO level, at 10 Mbps, risks becoming out-of-date. Ofcom should review this prior to its introduction, not least because there will be pressure to leave the USO unchanged for a while to bed down. When the USO is applied decisions about upgrading networks should be taken on a value for money basis and not just a cheapest solution basis. Whilst the cheap option may get premises or areas just over the 10 Mbps threshold, a value for money solution could deliver much higher speeds that result in more sustained benefits.
→ A focus on full fibre roll out: the Government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR) is welcome, setting a longer term goal for the nationwide roll out of full fibre networks. That technology should avoid rural areas falling behind again as demand for bandwidth continues to grow. Significant public funding, as indicated by the FTIR, is clearly justifiable given the market failure that would exist otherwise, with many rural areas considered uncommercial for the roll out. The plans for a rural first (or outside-in) approach to using public funds are exactly what are required. Further announcements, how the goal will be turned into practice, will be eagerly awaited. The upcoming Spending Review needs to allocate funding, building on the £200 million mentioned in the 2018 Budget. Rural businesses say their top three benefits from digital adoption are: It enables remote working It improves access to customers and suppliers It boosts overall business efficiency
→ A drive to connect rural businesses: evidence from the Rural England and SRUC survey of rural businesses is that those with a superfast connection realise more business benefits and face fewer digital challenges than those still dependent on a slower connection. The survey report concludes that, in order to capitalise on the public investment in superfast networks, more businesses should be encouraged to upgrade (where they have the option to do so). Government and local broadband partnerships should reinforce their efforts to promote the business benefits. This could include finding rural businesses which are already adopters and are willing to act as broadband champions among their peer group. Alongside this should be training and resources to help rural SMEs improve their digital skills.
→ A review of mobile connectivity: whilst mobile connectivity is improving, rural areas lag behind and there are particular rural issues, such as signal strength inside premises and signal loss for those on the move. Previous targets set for mobile network providers (as part of their licences) proved insufficient. It is imperative the regulator, Ofcom, sets sufficiently stretching targets when auctioning the next round of licenses. These should apply equally to all awarded a licence and ensure many more rural communities gain access to mobile internet/data services (as well as basic voice/text services). The sharing of phone masts by providers, to address gaps in provision, should be supported and, if necessary, regulated for. Looking ahead, it is crucial that rural communities feature prominently in plans to develop 5G networks.
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