Rural broadband restrictions

Posted on March 11, 2010 in Journalism

Today’s technological age is creating opportunities for all of us – whether households, businesses or service providers.  But if you live in a rural area, you and your community are increasingly missing out.

Here’s our roundup on rural broadband – its provision, impact and the government’s response.

Rural Services Network – March 2010

Internet usage

Internet usage in the UK has grown by over 500% during the last decade.

There were 8m users in 1998, and nearly 47m in 2008. 


So common and widespread has its usage become that 87% of users say access to it should be a ‘fundemental right for all people’, according to a poll conducted for the BBC by GlobeScan.

It’s now the ‘fourth utility’ for households.

Increasingly, there are calls for new housing and business developments to be installed with broadband as a matter of course – alongside water, electricity and gas.

Rural broadband

And yet around 18% of rural areas are still unable to get broadband, according to the Country Land and Business Association.

Nearly 600,000 rural businesses are unable to use it for their purchases, sales and administration, the CLA estimates.

The areas most affected are rural parts of the South West, Yorkshire, the North East and North West, plus Scotland and Wales. 

Without broadband, businesses and households cannot reap the full advantages of the internet – and yet consumer services are increasingly delivered via the web, and, for businesses, VAT and single farm payment forms are now expected to be filed online.

Others are restricted by slow broadband speeds.

An additional 2m people in rural areas (21% of its population) cannot get broadband of 2Mbps, according to the report ‘Mind the Gap’, by the Commission for Rural Communities. 

Below 2Mbps, web users would struggle to send and download large documents, watch videos and TV, make cheaper calls using Skype, interrogate large web sites – and more.

Which is particularly frustrating for rural areas, where working at home – whether as an employee or self-employed – is around 50% higher than in urban areas.

In summary, lack of fast broadband restricts economic possibilities – be they job search, educational or business needs.  And it has physical and social consequences – preventing people from overcoming their rural isolation.

Universal Service Commitment

But it’s not just our rural areas that are missing out.

Broadband speeds across the UK lag behind our competitors.

Our advertised speeds are around 12Mbps, which is only one quarter of those in Japan and South Korea (over 80Mbps), and half those in France (50 Mbps).

This places us 15th among the 30 countries of the OECD.

In response, the government has pledged to provide 2Mbps broadband to all households by 2012 – a universal service commitment, announced in last years ‘Digital Britain Report’.

And it plans to deliver faster, ‘next generation’ broadband (undefined, but around 24-25Mbps) to 90% of homes by 2017. 

The latter will be part-financed by a proposed 50p/month tax on landline phones.  This will enable the government to ensure superfast broadband reaches areas where, because of their smaller populations, private providers are less likely to invest – what it calls the ‘Final Third’ project.


So, is the government’s strategy right?

A group of MPs wants the government to concentrate on current rather than long term priorities. 

The cross-party Business Innovation and Skills Committee believe the government should focus on getting 2Mbps to every household and the country’s 10m ‘non-users’ onto the web.

Currently, broadband speeds can vary according to time of day and households’ distance from their exchange.  

The MPs also think the ‘telephone tax’ will be regressive – ie that the real cost will be greater to low income groups, who are also less likely to benefit.

Others want the government to look further ahead. 

The Royal Academy for Engineering said the UK should be aiming for a minimum speed of at least 4Mbps – to keep up with countries like South Korea, which is committed to speeds of 100Mbps.

And the Country Land and Business Association predict the government needs far more money – £15bn rather than the £1bn expected from the landline levy – to deliver superfast broadband to every home.


Already, rural communities are hampered by lack of reliable and fast broadband – something needs to be done.

And the growing dominance of the internet means increasingly they will face disadvantage.

Without major government intervention, in a few years’ time most urban areas will be using broadband at 30Mbps+, with many rural areas left trailing on speeds 10% as fast.

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© Robert Bullard.  Not for reproduction without prior permission

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