Data: Improved rural connectivity worth £65bn to UK economy
August 1, 2023
By Colin Mann
Improved rural connectivity could boost the UK economy by £65.1 billion (€76bn), new economic modelling from economics consultancy the Cebr for multiplay telco Virgin Media O2 has found. The report, The Great Rural Revival, addresses four sectors central to the UK’s rural economy – tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, and small businesses – and finds connectivity improvements could boost rural employment by 6.8 per cent, creating an additional 284,000 new jobs.
Over the last decade, digital connectivity has been improved in rural communities across the UK, creating new opportunities within previously disconnected regions. However, a digital divide remains between rural and urban communities, which is preventing rural communities and economies from achieving their growth potential, with many areas still unable to access reliable connectivity.
The analysis in the report shows that across the UK, the East of England would benefit most from digital connectivity upgrades, unlocking a £12 billion boost for the local economy and 42,000 new jobs. Other regions set to benefit include the South West, where the local economy could unlock £7 billion and benefit from 39,000 new jobs, as well as Wales, where £5 billion could be unlocked alongside 25,000 jobs. The regional analysis demonstrates how improving rural connectivity directly supports the government’s levelling up agenda, which aims to spread opportunities more equally across the UK.
The report highlights how improved connectivity could enable and power new technologies which transform rural economies and life – from drone farming and smart livestock monitoring, to wearable technology and automated booking apps for the hospitality sector. Meanwhile, around a quarter of rural business decision makers surveyed as part of the report said they would make greater use of technologies such as cashless payments, video calling/conferencing or online booking if connectivity was improved.
“At a time when communities across the UK are struggling, this new analysis demonstrates how improved rural connectivity could herald a Great Rural Revival,” notes Jeanie York, Chief Technology Officer at Virgin Media O2. “The last decade has seen fixed and mobile networks rolled out to new corners of the UK, and now the transformational potential of connectivity has been made clear with the ability to unlock £65 billion of new growth in rural areas.”
“Through working closely with industry partners, the UK Government, planning authorities and landowners, we can deliver the essential network upgrades that will help to bridge the rural-urban connectivity divide, provide faster and more reliable coverage and unlock new jobs and growth in the process,” she suggests.
To help realise the benefits that enhanced connectivity can bring to rural tourism, Virgin Media O2 has partnered with the Welsh Government and rural coverage expert Wavemobile, to bring next generation connectivity to historic not-spots.
The first area in the UK to benefit is South Stack, a nature reserve and popular tourist destination in rural Wales managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), where new technology has brought permanent mobile connectivity to the area for the first time. Visitors can now reliably access mobile signal in the area, and card payments can be taken at the visitor centre in a boost to the local economy.
The isolated area is benefitting from connectivity after Virgin Media O2 brought together a range of technologies to offer services in a cost-effective way. Typically, mobile phone masts require a fibre cable to carry calls, SMS and data to and from the phone mast – a connection known in the industry as ‘backhaul’ – but that is not viable in this extremely remote location. Instead, a network of low-earth orbit satellites are providing backhaul services to a Wavemobile radio, enabling Virgin Media O2 to provide a reliable and high-speed mobile network to the area. The equipment is the size of a shoebox and can take as little as five minutes to install. It can provide 4G coverage to an area of several kilometres.
Wales’s Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething MS says: “It’s great to see Virgin Media O2 and Wavemobile continue to invest in R&D in Wales, supporting the Morlais tidal energy project and addressing a historically challenging mobile notspot.”
“Bringing reliable 4G connectivity to the area will not only dramatically improve the mobile signal for the local community, businesses and visitors – enabling them to use online services using the very latest Internet of Things technology, but using satellite technology will also ensure the development does not negatively impact marine wildlife.”
In the rural tourism sector, the report shows that improved connectivity could result in a 9.9 per cent increase in turnover, equating to an extra £842 million per year. Since the pandemic, tourism across rural parts of the UK has soared, with countryside retreats accounting for nearly half of all Airbnb bookings in 2021, compared with 23 per cent in 2019. Meanwhile, disruption to international travel in 2022 saw British hotels, B&Bs and holiday parks record a 20 per cent-30 per cent rise in enquiries.
The report shows that with new applications and digital connectivity rapidly changing the way people travel, spend and behave, the rural tourism industry could benefit from embracing new technology and ways of working.
“Our findings highlight how improved digital connectivity could unleash growth in the rural economy,” explains Robert Beauchamp, Managing Economist Cebr. “These impacts would mainly be felt outside London, in regions like the North West, South West, and Yorkshire & the Humber. Improved connectivity could allow rural businesses to be more efficient, make full use of digital technologies, and create more jobs to strengthen the rural economy. Without improved rural connectivity, problems which could be solved will instead remain and the opportunities related to better connectivity would not be realised, meaning rural communities will continue to underperform relative to their urban counterparts.”
Virgin Media O2 says it remains committed to increasing its coverage in rural areas and signal not-spots, closing the connectivity gap between urban and rural areas. As part of the UK Government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN), Virgin Media O2 has recently further expanded its 4G network to an additional 50 sites across rural communities, bolstering coverage across an area covering almost 2,200km² – around the size of Herefordshire. This includes upgrades at numerous tourist hotspots such as the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides, Kent, East Sussex and Yorkshire, and it has secured planning consent for works at a further 100 sites.
While SRN upgrades continue to be delivered at pace, Virgin Media O2 is calling on policy makers, planning authorities and landlords to remove obstacles and ensure rural communities fulfil their potential. Specifically, the company wants rules in place making it faster, easier and lower-cost to provide the infrastructure that is required to deliver the connectivity customers rely on