A digital divide is unacceptable: the significance of broadband for rural communities
With Infinity and fibre having bypassed many rural areas, maybe it's necessary to replay the argument yet again in the light of the Lords communications committee criticising the government's broadband strategy. Especially if, like us, you're trying to run a data-hungry creative agency with a less than 5MB downlink and 300K uplink.
The benefits of improving broadband provision in rural areas include:
- ensuring the competitiveness of many rural businesses;
- enabling reliable access to online activities like diagnosing health problems remotely, distance learning, home-working and telemarketing; and
- supporting the green agenda by enabling people to work more readily from home and reducing the need to travel for some services and provisions.
And of course it's the first of these that causes us most concern on a daily basis. Like it or not, with the decline of agriculture in rural areas, it's often the creative industries that offer employment and regeneration opportunities. And businesses like ours need to move a great deal of data over broadband networks.
Kava Communications provides print, video and graphics to major international clients, yet we're having to compete with metro-based agencies with more than 10 to 20 times the broadband capacity available to our business. Ironically, our clients include some of the world's leading telecom companies and they expect us to be able deliver large video and graphics files fast and efficiently. In short, the lack of viable broadband services in rural areas means that before long many may be forced to move their businesses back to urban areas. This makes no sense at a time the government is seeking to drive enterprise and encourage rural employment and regeneration.
It's also worth considering three further points that are often neglected when looking into the impact of poor broadband provision in rural areas:
- It's not just the theoretical data speeds that are the problem in rural areas, but the actual data speeds that are often reduced still further by the ancient "last mile" infrastructure from the exchange to the end user. In our case, the poor quality of BT lines to and from our local exchange means we have to further reduce our data speeds via routers to enable a consistent service. In other words, we have to make a very poor service even worse. This would be deemed unacceptable in a metro context, but is somehow OK for the sticks.
- Businesses like ours not only require broadband for internet access, but also for voice communications. SMEs need to save money by using VoIP as well as data services, putting still more pressure on our already "thin" broadband pipe.
- Rural mobile coverage is terrible. Our office is in a coverage blackhole that none of the mobile providers currently fill adequately. The solution to poor in-building rural coverage is wireless router type devices called femtocells or small cells. Small cells use - wait for it - fixed line broadband to deliver high quality mobile services without the need for unsightly mobile masts that no one wants in their backyard. This solution is attracting the attention of many MPs with rural constituencies (see, for example, Hansard). But it's a solution that cannot be employed without adequate broadband provision.