Spotlight on a digitally connected countryside

The RSN is calling on government to produce a fully funded, comprehensive rural strategy. In this strategy there are a number of areas which we believe are linked, and need to be addressed to produce a vibrant rural community. One of these is a Digitally Connected Countryside.
All rural households and businesses should have the option of affordable and reliable access to broadband and mobile networks. Digital infrastructure should be considered essential for a modern economy and to enable fair access to services and other opportunities.

  • Significant sums of public expenditure have been invested to extend the reach of superfast broadband networks into less commercial areas. This included match funding from rural local authorities (a cost not borne by urban authorities). However, there remains a noticeable gap between levels of connectivity in rural and urban areas.
  • In England’s rural areas 11% of premises – households and businesses – are unable to access a broadband connection with a 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed. Industry regulator, Ofcom, considers this a necessary speed for everyday online tasks.
  • In the most remote rural locations connection speeds can be significantly worse. A survey of its members by the National Farmers Union in 2017 concluded that half (50%) could not yet access a basic 2 Mbps connection.
  • Mobile connectivity has improved, but the indoor signal is poor in England’s rural areas, with phone calls on all four networks only possible at 67% of premises. Meanwhile, using 4G on all networks – giving fast internet access – is only possible inside 42% of rural premises.
  • Rural take-up of superfast broadband is fair where it is available, with almost four in ten premises upgrading. However, a rural business survey by Rural England and SRUC found only 19% had a superfast connection and most (59%) relied on standard broadband. It also found high rates of dissatisfaction with connection speed and reliability.
  • The survey, cited above, identifies significant and wide-ranging rural business benefits from digital adoption. It estimates that if constraints to digital adoption, such as skills and recruitment, could be overcome it would unlock at least £12 billion of extra productivity per annum (Gross Value Added).

Sources are Ofcom (2018), NFU (2016) and Rural England/SRUC (2017).

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

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:

    • Extending broadband networks to those premises still missing out;
    • Future proofing broadband policy, so rural areas do not fall behind again;
    • Capitalising on the benefits from the roll out of superfast networks; and
    • Addressing issues with mobile network coverage (including 4G).

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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