Rural Britain far from digital

The need for decent levels of rural broadband services was first highlighted about 10 years ago, but the light at the end of the (fibre-optic) tunnel is still as dim as ever for many rural dwellers.

The Conservatives hopped on the bandwagon recently with a pledge for ‘nationwide super-fast broadband by 2017′. This follows Digital Britain, the Government report published last summer, which outlines plans to deliver ‘quality broadband access to every home by 2012′, and ‘super-fast broadband to the third of the country that we know the market won’t reach on its own’, by 2017. To finance this, the Government has sanctioned a 50p ‘telephone tax’ to raise about £1 billion.

The Conservatives propose adding £1.3 billion taken over five years from the BBC licence fee. Although the proposals are widely welcomed, organisations such as the CLA claim neither goes far enough. ‘It’s fundamental to the economic well-being of rural Britain that effective broadband is available everywhere much sooner than 2017,’ says John Mortimer, the CLA’s director in the South-West, one of the hardest-hit areas.

‘By then, many rural businesses will have gone to the wall or relocated to areas where fast broadband speeds are available.’ There is also scepticism about how the projects will be financed. According to Dr Charles Trotman, the CLA’s head of rural-business development, industry figures suggest the cost would be more like £15 billion over a 10-year timeframe. ‘The big question is exactly which applications need 100Mbps broadband? Just 2Mbps would be sufficient for most people. The focus should be on dealing with the 42% of the rural population who currently receive below 2Mbps.’

Britain ranks 13th in the world for broadband penetration and 25th for speed, behind Sweden, Ireland and South Korea. ‘Broadband access has changed from a luxury to a “fourth utility” for most of the UK’s population,’ explains Liz Peel of the Commission for Rural Communities.

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Being cut off not only puts businesses such as farms, with their growing amounts of online paperwork, at a significant disadvantage, but, as they’re increasingly expected to file documents online (such as the new £100,000-rate VAT regulation), they risk incurring fines.

A spokesman from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the Government was confident about the 2012 target. A proposal to allow other companies to use the BT infrastructure, which was tentatively agreed this month, would let the private sector take some of the strain.