New Report Warns Poor Broadband is Holding Back Rural England - ISPreview UK
A new report from Rural England CIC, which claims to offer independent research, networking and information exchange for the country’s many rural areas, has warned that a lack of good broadband is holding back rural consumers in some areas.

The ‘State of Rural Services 2016‘ (PDF) report, which notes that 9,206,500 people and 523,705 businesses live in rural England, highlights how rural areas are increasingly being affected by the loss or reduction of once common services, such as local Post Offices, Buses, GPs (doctors), Banks and so forth.

At the same time it also recognises that “providing accessible and good quality services to rural communities poses challenges, given the geography of small and scattered settlements, lost economies of scale, additional travel required and the delivery costs involved.” Indeed providing broadband to such small communities can often be disproportionately expensive.

However, the report also recognises that innovation and good practice can address many challenges, often by working with local communities. For example, Rural England suggests that one of the ways in which the problems can be balanced is through greater use of online services, but the on-going lack of good rural broadband can present a significant obstacle.

Extract – State of Rural Services 2016 Report

Rural access to a range of services is altering due to the provision of and take-up of online services. This has considerable scope to address long standing concerns about rural access to services, if geographic distance is no longer such a barrier. However, this is not straightforward. Not all groups are online, some rural areas await decent (broadband) connectivity and one consequence may be less used physical outlets e.g. bank branches.

Online shopping and home delivery is a fast growing trend for grocery shopping and retail purchasing more generally. Whilst this may be of particular value to many rural consumers, some will face the limitation of a slow broadband connection and innovations, such as parcel shops, are largely urban based.
Sadly the word “broadband” only appears three times in the whole 96-page report, but at no point is any analysis done to examine the scale of the digital infrastructure problem. The report also fails to put forward any clear recommendations for improving the situation, which seems like a missed opportunity.

A quick glance at Ofcom’s most recent Connected Nations 2016 report might have provided Rural England with some useful information. The regulator estimates that 90% of England can already get a fixed line “superfast broadband” (30Mbps+) service and outdoor 4G Mobile coverage sits at the same level, although “superfast” fixed line coverage drops to just 62% in rural areas (up from 45% in 2015) and 22% of related areas can’t get a download speed of greater than 10Mbps (compared with just 2% in urban parts of England).

The good news is that the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme expects to push superfast broadband coverage to 97%+ of the UK by 2020, but the figure for rural areas will no doubt end up lower. The Government intends to tackle the remaining 3% by supporting alternative network providers and introducing a new 10Mbps Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband, although there are concerns that they might use inferior Satellite as a quick fix for some of these.

A Spokesman for DCMS said:

“We are determined to go further and we’ve just announced £400 million that will be used to take superfast broadband even further and reach hundreds of thousands more rural homes. And we are legislating for a Universal Service Obligation, which will give every home and business in the UK the right to fast broadband.”
The statement from DCMS is interesting because that £400m, which was announced as part of last year’s Autumn Statement (here), is not being specifically allocated to rural areas (it can be used in urban locations too) and will form part of a wider Digital Infrastructure Investment Fund (DIIF). This is being setup to foster alternative ultrafast “full fibre” (FTTP/H) broadband networks for an extra 2 million UK premises.

Certainly the DIIF will help to benefit some rural areas and perhaps that mention of “hundreds of thousands more rural homes” is the first indication of what proportion may benefit, but as usual you have to take anything from the mouth of a political spokesman with a big pinch of salt. It’s very possible that they could be mixing several different broadband policies up into the same paragraph.

It’s also interesting to note the remark about the planned USO, which aims to “give every home and business in the UK the right to fast broadband.” However our reading from the various USO consultations is that those measures would be more targeted towards the final 3% rather than being truly universal, but we certainly hope that it is universally applied as there are plenty of situations where those covered by “superfast” or faster connectivity don’t always receive the promised speeds.