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UK MPs criticise rural digital divide

September 19, 2019

By Colin Mann

A Report – An Update on Rural Connectivity – from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament has highlighted the continuing digital divide between urban and rural areas, suggesting that this, together with that between rural towns and sparser rural settlements, continues to marginalise communities and be the cause of frustration.

Despite significant improvement in both rural broadband and mobile coverage in recent years, it has only barely kept up with increasing demand. Poor connectivity continues to hinder rural businesses and is preventing people from engaging with online public services the rest of the country take for granted.

The Government has recognised that connectivity must be treated as a utility with its introduction of the broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) and has outlined a commitment to ensure the divide between urban and rural areas is not exacerbated through various funding initiatives.

However, given the continued challenges posed to rural businesses and communities, the Committee is not confident that the Government has fully grasped the extent of the problem, the scale of the challenge, or the wider cost of poor connectivity for the rural economy.

The Report states that the current specification for the Universal Service Obligation is inadequate and lacks ambition for rural areas. It is not truly “universal” and its minimum speed of 10Mbps will be obsolete soon after introduction.

The Report also welcomes the ambition of the new Prime Minister to deliver universal full-fibre broadband by 2025 but is sceptical as to whether this new target will be achieved without potentially controversial reforms. In addition, the Report recommends a “rural roaming” solution is needed to tackle partial “not-spots” in mobile coverage in the absence of a forthcoming agreement between Government and Mobile Network Operators.

“Despite improvements in coverage since our predecessor’s Report, our inquiry has shown that poor broadband and mobile data services continue to marginalise rural communities, particularly those living in hard to reach areas,” commented Neil Parish MP, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. “Digital connectivity is now regarded by many as an essential utility, with many in rural areas struggling to live a modern lifestyle without it. There continues to be a lot of frustration felt by those living or working in rural areas– and rightly so.”

“We support the Government’s commitment to the broadband USO and an ‘outside-in approach to full fibre roll out, ensuring that rural areas are prioritised in the future. We also welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to achieve universal full-fibre broadband by 2025.”

“However, the Committee is not confident that the Government has fully grasped the scale of the challenge currently faced and is sceptical as to whether the Government will meet these ambitious new targets without considerable and potentially controversial reforms.”

“In addition, on the eve of 5G mobile data services, people in rural areas will increasingly feel like second class citizens if they can’t access 4G or even 3G services. Rural roaming must be seen as a solution, if no voluntary proposal is agreed between mobile network operators and Government.”

“ The problem of poor connectivity in rural areas has gone on for far too long. With so many of our public services now delivered primarily online, it is imperative that this problem is resolved and that rural communities are granted the same digital access as the majority of their urban counterparts,” he concluded.

“Access to a decent broadband connection for rural communities is a serious problem and it’s understandable the EFRA concluded the current specification of the broadband USO lacks ambition,” noted Alex Tofts, Broadband Expert at independent UK comparison service Broadband Genie. “Our own research found only 27 per cent think the current specification of 10Mbps+ is an acceptable target. However, it’s important to remember this is only a minimum target, in most cases users should be able to enjoy higher speeds.”

“The rural broadband landscape is looking rosier: the number of properties that cannot get access to a decent broadband connection is down to 578,000, from 860,000 within a year. However, if 4G is going to be used to plug the fixed-line coverage, it must be affordable and deliver value for money for rural broadband users who may have no other options.”

“ISPA welcomes the Committee’s report and their call for Government to release a statement outlining its strategy for achieving its 2025 nationwide full fibre ambitions,” stated Andrew Glover, Chair Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA), the voice of the UK Internet industry to policy makers, the media and the public. “As we said in our letter to the Prime Minister, this is not a can to kick down the road, and the clock is ticking for the Government to take urgent action to ensure that this ambition is realistic.”

“As the report notes, this strategy requires support from across Government to act quickly and decisively to support industry as they embark on this huge infrastructural challenge. We are also pleased to see that the Committee has adopted ISPA’s recommendations that reform of current wayleave arrangements and delivery of full-fibre connections in new builds is essential to ensure an accelerated full fibre roll out. We look forward to continuing to work with Government to make this a reality.”



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