Has the government given up on bridging the digital divide? The issue of digital connectivity and the government’s work on it was the focus of the first oral session of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse’s inquiry into rural productivity.
To get answers that crossed the breadth of the digital spectrum, witnesses included Richard Wainer, Head of Policy at BT; Hamish MacLeod, Director of MobileUK; Till Sommer, Head of Policy at the Internet Services Providers Association and Dr Charles Trotman, the CLA’s Senior Rural Business Adviser. Inquiry co-chair Julian Sturdy MP led the session and was joined by co-chair Lord Cameron of Dillington and other parliamentarians who formed the panel.
The session, which mirrored a select committee inquiry, began with opening statements from each witness. There was consensus that the pandemic had led to a renewed focus on the urban-rural digital divide, with the shift in working patterns showing how fundamental a decent connection is and that rural areas should not be omitted from this drive. The reconfiguration of how people are working was cited as an opportunity for the rural economy but an opportunity that will need assistance from the government.
The connectivity potential
The panel asked the witnesses how important digital connectivity is in unlocking rural productivity. Richard Wainer from BT pointed to evidence that shows economic productivity benefits to gigabit-capable connectivity could drive about £60bn in improved productivity. Though this figure is UK-wide, given that rural areas are less well connected than urban areas, it suggests that much of the improvement would come from rural areas. Hamish MacLeod detailed the real-life examples that better mobile connectivity would unlock, such as online banking at the Royal Welsh showground, following deployment there, and Charles Trotman highlighted the importance of improving not just access but digital skills in tapping into potential productivity. Till Sommer added that there was an entire cycle of innovation in rural areas that digital connectivity would unlock, citing how young people leave rural areas for university and never return due to the lack of infrastructure.
Having highlighted the utility of universal coverage, the panel then enquired about the government’s decision to reduce the gigabit commitment from 100% to 85% by 2025 (announced in the last Spending Review), which affects connecting the hardest-to-reach places. The ambition of the government in bringing forward its original target of 2033 to 2025 was highlighted to the panel, and it was clear that there was consensus among witnesses that there needs to be more of a plan from the government for connecting the final 15%, with regulatory reform to support investment and accelerate deployment. This plan should include a firm commitment from the government that if it becomes possible to rollout quicker to rural areas, then more money should be made available from the allocated £5bn fund.
The Shared Rural Network
Hamish MacLeod then updated the panel on the progress of the Shared Rural Network (SRN), which is an important programme for boosting mobile capacity in rural areas. MacLeod said that most of the preparatory work – radio plan, public procurement process, state aid rules – has been completed and that the SRN is moving to the site surveying and site acquisition section of the programme. When asked if there was confidence in meeting the five-year timetable, Richard Wainer, speaking on behalf of BT as an operator in the SRN, said BT remained confident of the timelines. Charles Trotman raised the issue of balance between the rights of site providers and mobile operators, citing valuation as the key issue. He said that lack of compromise could become the biggest barrier to deployment.
The panel also asked about barriers to deployment. Till Sommer said that reducing issues that create admin costs, delays or increase the cost of rollout unlocks extra premises to roll-out with the same amount of money. Physical barriers might include street works and engaging with local authorities to get permits to dig up the road, for example. Sommer added that during the pandemic, some local authorities used the empty roads as an opportunity to get the broadband providers in whereas others took the opposite approach. Access to land was also mentioned. Charles Trotman spoke of the good progress that has been made with the wayleave programme in rural areas.
Overall, the APPG was pleased with how the session went and the wide-ranging answers on digital connectivity, with substantive suggestions for improvements. The evidence gathered during the session will feed into a report that the APPG is undertaking on how to improve productivity in rural areas. The next oral session will look at the planning system and will take place in July.