Closing the digital divide

Continual improvement of digital coverage is needed to ensure that rural areas can achieve their full productivity potential

It is perhaps unsurprising that after months of isolation, coupled with the feasibility of working from home, more city-dwellers are considering a move to the countryside.

The countryside promises cleaner air, vast open expanses and an abundance of natural life. But many of these planned moves rest on the assumption that working from home will be as easy in the countryside as it is in the city. All too often this is not the case. In fact, the rural economy has for years been denied the chance to reach its potential because of poor connectivity. If the Covid-19 pandemic has made plain how much our economic life relies on technology and digital skills, it has also highlighted the significant divide in connectivity between our urban and rural areas.

I know people living in rural ‘not spots’ who struggle to find key areas with 4G signal to take important calls or share large documents, be that at the end of the garden or driving to the top of a hill.

This divide contributes to lower productivity in rural areas, which sits at 16% below the national average.

The connectivity issue

It’s estimated that nearly half a million rural homes have poor or slow broadband. We welcome the agreement struck between the government and mobile operators, which entails sharing the cost of phone masts as part of a £1 billion plan to end poor mobile coverage in the countryside, but what matters now is delivery.

The operators have to meet their legal obligations within the agreement and ensure transparency and effective communication with rural businesses and communities. The reality is that 4G adds £75 billion to the UK economy every year and yet only 66% of rural areas have good coverage.

Broadband connectivity is especially important to emerging businesses, and in the wake of Covid-19, we will need our entrepreneurs to be able to play a vital role in getting the economy back on its feet.

In order to ensure that the UK has full connectivity by 2025 there needs to be a continual improvement and widening of mobile coverage. It is not enough to wait and then make dramatic change. Progress must be constant and incremental.

Therefore, hard interim targets must be set within the government’s and mobile operators’ Shared Rural Network agreement.

We want the Shared Rural Network to work. Rural landowners are often more than willing to help, but the operators must play fair. If they do not, we won’t get anywhere, and the legal guarantees laid down by Ofcom will not be met. As it is, poor broadband and mobile coverage is severely holding back the rural economy, and improving connectivity will unleash the economic potential of the countryside and allow its communities to be sustainable.

It will mean jobs and wealth creation in areas blighted by years of neglect. It will eliminate the postcode lottery for digital services by ensuring that even those who live in the most remote areas can access their bank accounts, complete their VAT return, access healthcare services, or shop, all online.

The UK countryside has been left behind, time and time again. This has to end now.