Countryside dwellers are victims of ‘digital divide’, warn MPs — and it must be fixed before they become ‘second-class citizens’

A new report by the House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee puts the spotlight on the technology gap between town and country and asks for urgent solutions.

The countryside is increasingly suffering from the digital divide with cities, with residents at risk of becoming ‘second-class’ citizens, according to a new report by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, echoing a report published by a Lords’ committee earlier this year.

MPs found that, despite improvements in the rollout of both broadband and mobile coverage, the technology gap persists and, according to the Committee’s chair, Neil Parish MP, it continues ‘to marginalise rural communities, particularly those living in hard to reach areas.’

In particular, poor access to the Internet creates significant hurdles for rural businesses and prevents country residents from taking advantage of public services.

‘Digital connectivity is now regarded by many as an essential utility, with many in rural areas struggling to live a modern lifestyle without it,’ explains Mr Parish. ‘There continues to be a lot of frustration felt by those living or working in rural areas — and rightly so.’

Although the Government had already announced a plan to bridge the gap, with the launch of a Universal Service Obligation (USO) for broadband — which gives people across the country the right to request access to ‘decent and affordable broadband connection’ from March 2020 — the Parliamentary Committee feels the plan is inadequate, with the Government-mandated minimum download speed of 10 megabits-per-second at risk of proving outdated as soon as it is introduced, given that some parts of the country are starting to have access to the much faster full-fibre service.

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‘We support the Government’s commitment to the broadband USO and an “outside-in” approach to full-fibre rollout, 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,’ says Mr Parish.

‘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.’

‘There is a real urban/rural digital divide, which, thanks to the arrival of 5G and full-fibre broadband, is likely to get worse’

MPs recommended a rural-roaming solution to tackle mobile black-holes in the countryside — a proposal that has long been contentious, as some mobile operators object to consumers in signal-poor areas being able to use whichever network is available at no extra charge. A long-mooted voluntary scheme to address the problem has yet to emerge.

‘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,’ cautions Mr Parish. ‘Rural roaming must be seen as a solution, if no voluntary proposal is agreed between mobile network operators and the 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.’

The Country Land and Business Association, which has long been campaigning for better mobile connectivity in rural areas, welcomed the Committee’s proposals.

‘The findings of the investigation confirm there is a real urban/rural digital divide, which, thanks to the arrival of 5G and full-fibre broadband, is likely to get worse,’ notes Deputy President Mark Bridgeman.

‘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.’

‘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.’

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