The Challenge to Connect the Countryside

11/05/2016 10:55

Connecting rural communities to the internet is one of the most important economic challenges of our time. It is the key to delivering greater productivity and harnessing opportunities in a range of rural industries from farming to tourism to research and development. There is still more at stake: with genuinely universal access to the internet we will stand a chance of decentralising the economy, allowing people to build careers and businesses while living in the countryside, and spreading jobs and investment across a broader stretch of the country.

It is the obvious ambition, apparently so hard to achieve. Yes, progress is being made. The CLA has been pressing better rural connections for many years and in 2015, when the Prime Minister committed the Government to a universal service obligation of at least 10 megabits per second by 2020, it was a breakthrough. This is expected to feature in legislation announced in the Queen's Speech next week and the sooner the right to broadband is enshrined in law, the better.

However the lack of urgency that has long been shown by Government and the big communications companies is tough to swallow. The discrimination is real and anger is understandable. Frustrations have been bubbling over, with at least one national newspaper reporting accusations that the government is reneging on the promise of universal coverage for rural areas.

Recent commentary that has slated Government for betraying its commitment is based on a 'revelation' that under the proposed universal service obligation the final 5% in the remotest areas would need to request this right. There is a real danger that those focusing on this 'revelation' are in danger of misplacing their anger.

The misunderstanding stems from the Government's point, set out in the consultation on how to make the universal service obligation work in practice, that in an extremely remote location the telephone line based (fibre to cabinet) model is unlikely to be a cost effective way of accessing the internet. The Government argues that there are a range of technologies from satellite, to remote wireless internet and mobile connections that are likely to be better and more cost effective ways of achieving connection.

These types of connections are already being made through the use of voucher schemes giving premises that are not within roll out areas grants to pay for the equipment they need to be connected. At their most innovative these schemes see groups of homes and businesses pooling their money together and putting in place infrastructure like fibre optic cables direct to premises, giving them better connections than urban counterparts.

This does not constitute a climb down on the commitment to delivering a universal service obligation. The policy is pragmatic and vitally important. Rather than bring it into question, campaigners and government must work together to deliver the promise of a universal service by 2020.

Government and BT must still be held to account. After years of promises and billions of pounds of taxpayers' money spent, there are still far too many rural communities waiting for even a basic level of connection. At the same time, we witness daily the exponential growth in the opportunity that digital connectivity presents and the insatiable growth in demand for ever faster speeds. The legal right to 10Mbps is a good breakthrough but the challenge we face only grows and we need to see evidence that Government is already thinking about what comes next.

By 2020 10 Mbps will already be inadequate for many businesses. We do not want to be faced with a continuous game of broadband catch up where rural communities always lag far behind. The CLA is exploring how countryside communities can leap ahead and achieve the ultrafast connections that will genuinely set rural businesses up for the future. Only when Government and industry show that they are looking to that horizon alongside us will they genuinely deserve the credit they crave.