How the internet is changing rural communities

The digital revolution is redefining the way we live and communicate. We email each other and receive news from the internet on a daily basis (even those who are not online do, via children and grandchildren). Many of us download (digitally compressed) music, and radio programmes for free. We own digital televisions, or will be forced to when the analogue signal is turned off in 2012. Yet the benefits of digital are not unequivocal and this revolution is accompanied by a fear of loss of social networks, and concern that some rural areas will be stuck in the slow lane of the information super-highway.

Broadband is one of the key drivers of change in rural Britain. According to the Carnegie Commission for Rural Community Development, the flexibility of this new technology has enabled a rapid growth in the number of people working from home (even me, as I write), with more people moving to rural areas as a result. Villages and towns are benefiting, with greater numbers of people around during the day to use local shops and services. However, many fear that with the growth in online transactions purchasing tax discs for vehicles and paying bills over the net ? the final death knell of the village post office has sounded.

However, this trend in home working should continue given the Government’s commitment to bringing broadband ‘to all who want it’ by 2008. According to a survey carried out last year by the regulator Ofcom, just 55% of rural households that are online are using a broadband connection, compared with 63% nationwide. However, internet usage in rural areas at 61% of households is higher than the national average of 57%, which suggests that as broadband becomes more widely available, the uptake will be good.

A recent article in The New York Times cites the increased use of telemedicine, as remote doctoring is known, in far-flung rural areas of the US. There, psychiatry is emerging as one of the most promising uses of technology, as a growing number of doctors practice through the airwaves and wires, via a video link-up. Remote doctoring has not arrived in the UK (although, apparently, 65% of British doctors have used Google to help with a diagnosis), and many may be horrified by this disembodied approach, but the benefits for remote communities, which often have deep social problems, are easy to see. And, patients report being more comfortable and less intimidated by the distance it imposes, particularly those with trauma, or who have been abused.

The internet is, however, breaking down geographical barriers in more tangible ways. Increasingly the countryside is marketing itself to urban areas via the internet, and rural businesses such as Bella di Notte, the glamorous thermal underwear business started up by a farmer’s daughter in North Yorkshire are reporting a higher turnover per employee and higher growth expectations as a result.

Today, all self-respecting tourist boards and holiday cottage businesses have websites: some such as National Trust Cottages and Farm Stay UK market a particular type of rural experience; others such as Dales Holiday Cottages and Norfolk Country Cottages advertise specific regions of Britain. It’s almost churlish not to promote oneself this way?gastropubs, villages, and market towns do it, as do haunted houses, literary festivals and farmhouse cheeses.

In fact, at the click of a mouse, farmhouse food is available mail-order to anyone anywhere, with everything from Cornish fudge and Somerset cider to fillets of Aberdeen Angus beef being delivered across the country overnight by courier.

The geographical divide is also being dissolved as digital technology makes it easier to bring a greater range of culture to rural areas. Recently, the Tate announced that it wants its presence to be felt beyond the Turbine Hall or Liverpool Docks and, to that end, it plans to transform its website into a broadband arts channel.

In May, it was announced that a much greater range of films will be shown in British cinemas, thanks to a £12 million lottery-funded project to place digital projectors in theatres across the country. In return for the new equipment, 209 multiplexes, smaller ‘arthouse’ and local cinemas had to commit to a substantial increase in screenings for classic, foreign-language and British-produced movies such as Vera Drake and Girl with a Pearl Earring which have little chance of making it on to the usual mainstream distribution circuit.

Similarly, the arrival of digital television has been a salve for households in Wales, where take-up levels are the highest in the UK. Welsh viewers have been dogged by poor analogue reception for years, so they have enthusiastically embraced satellite television as a way of watching existing channels, especially last year when Wales won rugby’s Six Nations contest. Social barriers are coming down, too, thanks to the internet. E M Forster’s famous motto from Howard’s End, ‘Only connect’, has altogether new resonance. Via websites such as MySpace and Flickr people are connected as never before?trading photographs, music and gossip in a whole new dimension.

Dating agencies are thriving on an internet existence, with sites such as not only bringing together like-minded people, but also helping to alleviate some of loneliness and isolation experienced by those working the countryside. The arrival of the smart house where lighting, heat-ing and sound systems are programmable, networked and controllable from anywhere in the world, via the internet?raises a double-edged sword of possibility; of more absentee second-home owners, but the potential of a more energy efficient home.

The digital technology is also changing the way our children learn at school. Teachers and students now use educational software and interactive whiteboards (the blackboard is dying, I’m afraid) to encourage novel and visually exciting ways of learning. For rural schools often understaffed or under-funded?these can allow teachers to work in a less pressured way, particularly in science, music and technology classes.

For all its power, the digital revolution does risk creating a digital divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Intel and Age Concern have raised concerns about a digital divide among older people, with nearly half of Britain’s over-fifties not having access to a computer. Later this year, BT will launch a television-over-the-internet product and BSkyB is understood to be working on a similar service. But many rural households will find themselves unable to enjoy these services because they are too far from their local telephone exchange or their phone line is unable to use the new technology.

However, I believe that the advantages of internet access and all its digital benefits far outweigh the shortcomings. It is a revolution. We will be swept along, even if it is at different download speeds. And, in 10 years’ time, the internet will be as convenient and easy to use as electricity, and we’ll still be revelling in the freedom it gives us.