The last five years have seen significant improvements in access to fit-for-purpose broadband and 4G mobile services in rural areas of the UK, but increasing demand for digital services means rural networks are struggling to keep up, meaning the digital divide between urban and rural areas remains as wide as ever.
The extent of the challenge was highlighted in a new report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which said the divide was marginalising communities, causing frustration, hindering rural businesses and preventing people from engaging with online public services.
The committee, which is chaired by Conservative MP Neil Parish, who represents Tiverton and Honiton in Devon, said that while the government clearly recognised that connectivity ought to be treated as a utility, and welcomed various commitments to address the divide, it was not confident that the government really grasped the extent of the problem, the scale of the challenge or the cost to the wider economy.
“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,” said Parish.
“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.
“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,” he said.
Among other things, the report branded the Universal Service Obligation – which sets a minimum standard broadband speed of 10Mbps inadequate and lacking in ambition, and hinted that Boris Johnson could not possibly achieve his full-fibre for all vision by 2025 without potentially controversial reforms, even though it welcomed the ambition.
The report also called for the government to force a rural roaming solution for mobile network subscribers to tackle partial not-spots – areas where one or two networks, but not all, have 4G coverage, in the absence of any agreement between the government and the operators.
“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,” said Parish. “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,” he said. “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.”
Responding to the report, Mark Bridgeman, deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), agreed that the advent of 5G and full-fibre broadband could potentially exacerbate the digital divide.
“We’re delighted that our proposals for improving mobile coverage have been backed by the committee. If mobile operators are to put in place a shared rural network, it must be more than aspirational and should have legally binding coverage targets. If this is not possible, then rural roaming needs to be imposed,” he said.
“For too long, those living and working in the countryside have been dealt a poor hand when it comes to connectivity, waiting for improvements which never seem to arrive. We need urgent action now.”