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Rural businesses face "digital exclusion" due to underinvestment in connectivity

New research finds that the pandemic has created a “Catch-22 situation” for residents and businesses based in rural areas

Rural businesses face digital exclusion as government policies that aim to help them rebound from the pandemic are not “rural-proofed”.

That's according to a new report from non-profit research organisation Rural England CIC, which highlights the challenges faced by rural areas as they rebuild from the impacts of the pandemic.

The report found that one in six rural residents cannot access superfast broadband, with more than half unable to get an indoor 4G mobile connection on all four of the UK’s main mobile networks.

This is despite 93% of rural residents increasing their use of online services over the course of the pandemic, while over half started using some online services for the first time. 

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Rural England CIC chairman and the report’s author, Brian Wilson, said that the findings suggest that the pandemic had created a “Catch-22 situation” for residents and businesses based in rural areas.

“The growing appetite for online services is no bad thing, but it will have significant consequences for those rural residents facing digital exclusion due to lack of online skills and connectivity. Rural areas, which already face disadvantage, need to be supported to ensure that businesses and communities can thrive and are not left behind as the nation builds back following the pandemic,” he added.

Wilson also commented on the government’s digital upskilling programmes, which aim to tackle regional skills gaps.

“With the upcoming levelling up programmes, it is vital that public policies and programmes are rural-proofed,” he said.

House of Lords member Lord Ewen Cameron of Dillington, called on the government to not ignore rural residents and businesses as the nation rebuilds from the pandemic.

“Those who find it more difficult to adapt to online services are at risk of further challenges in accessing already harder to reach services. This report launched today provides a vital on-going snapshot of how well rural services are being delivered, and what effect that delivery is having on the quality of life in our countryside,” he said.

In April 2021, Three's head of Government Affairs Simon Miller argued that the UK government continues to ignore business use cases across rural areas when rolling out network infrastructure, leading to “structural and systemic issues that make it hard and disproportionately expensive to build out networks to those communities”.

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