Urban-rural broadband divide persists, despite rhetoric

Select committee questions how much priority the government is actually giving to helping rural businesses

The government has not grasped the extent of the networking divide between different regions of the UK, with any efforts to improve coverage barely keeping up with demand.

Despite several programmes designed to boost broadband and mobile internet coverage in rural areas, poor connectivity continues to hinder businesses, according to parliament's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee.

The committee said that people and organisations in these communities are being prevented from engaging with online-based services that the rest of the country takes for granted.

The government has made several announcements on efforts to boost rural networking in recent years, most recently investing 30 million in boosting rural 5G through the Rural Connected Communities competition.

There are a number of issues the select committee highlighted that combine to give a patchy overview of the landscape, however, including the fact such efforts haven't kept up with the pace of demand.

Of particular concern is the fact the government hasn't collected information regarding how many businesses are affected and the wider cost to the rural economy before feeding this into policy-making.

"Digital connectivity is now regarded by many as an essential utility, with many in rural areas struggling to live a modern lifestyle without it," said chair of the select committee Neil Parish MP. "There continues to be a lot of frustration felt by those living or working in rural areas - and rightly so."

"We support the Government's commitment to the broadband USO [Universal Service Obligation] and an 'outside-in' approach to full-fibre roll-out, ensuring that rural areas are prioritised in the future.

"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."

The USO provides a set of standards to ensure universal broadband coverage across the UK. The current minimum requirement of 10Mbps, however, "has been set too low", the committee said and many prospective beneficiaries may end up feeling shortchanged by the commitment.

The new prime minister Boris Johnson's ambition to achieve universal full-fibre broadband by 2025, meanwhile, is not at all realistic without long-term public investment and "potentially controversial" regulatory reforms.

Given the immediacy of the new target which was previously set for 2033 the select committee has urged the government to release a statement as soon as possible outlining how it plans to honour this commitment to ensure the most hard-to-reach areas are prioritised. 

The rise of mobile data services, namely 4G and 5G, meanwhile, has served urban areas well but research suggests actual coverage varies from patchy to completely lacking in rural parts of the UK.

The select committee has concluded that Ofcom bears some responsibility for not setting enough targets for rural 4G coverage and not actually testing providers' datasets against actual experience instead of relying on projected performance.

There also needs to be a form of "rural roaming" or network sharing in difficult-to-reach areas in order to tackle poor mobile coverage, the committee said, given the industry has failed to find better solutions to the problem.

This sort of networking-sharing idea has previously been floated by experts as a means to spreading 5G across the UK.

Speaking at a Westminster eForum earlier this year, experts suggested that co-operation between providers instead of competition would be the best means to bringing the next generation of networking to rural areas quicker and more effectively.

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