Farmer using tablet in field

Covid highlights the need for urgent action on rural broadband

Image credit: Stevanovicigor/Dreamstime

The long-standing problem of poor connectivity has made it difficult for internet users in hard-to-reach areas to adapt to new ways of working during the Covid-19 pandemic. Government and ISPs need to work together to improve the situation.

2020 was a disruptive year for UK businesses. Following the Covid-19 outbreak, 20 per cent of the UK workforce was put on furlough, 55 per cent worked from home and, as of December 2020, more than three million people were unemployed.

While the pandemic boosted unemployment rates to unprecedented levels, it also led to a rise in entrepreneurship. In the week leading up to March 2021, 17,096 new businesses were registered in the UK - a significant increase from the 13,965 that were recorded in the same month of 2019.

If there’s one thing we have learned during a time of such uncertainty, it’s the importance of resilience and entrepreneurship. While we have seen examples of this play out across the country, those setting up new businesses or trying to grow existing ones, in rural areas in particular, have had to overcome additional challenges when it comes to broadband connectivity. In many cases, unreliable and slow broadband has proved a barrier to success.

Across the country, starting a business has empowered many people to take back control and provided hope, structure and an income during uncertain times. That said, for those in rural and hard-to-reach areas, the rise in entrepreneurship has simultaneously highlighted the deep digital divide between rural and urban communities.

For many in rural areas, a lack of broadband infrastructure has presented entrepreneurs with significant challenges when it comes to starting their fledgling business. In today’s world, where the majority of transactions take place over the internet and an online presence is essential for any brand, a reliable, high-speed broadband connection has never been more important.

Unfortunately, network providers have historically focused on developing infrastructure in densely populated areas where there are the most potential customers. As a result, the UK’s digital divide is at a critical level. As it stands today, a fifth of households in rural areas cannot get superfast broadband and many are still getting internet speeds as slow as 0.12Mbps. For those setting up or running businesses in rural areas, an unreliable broadband connection is a serious obstacle.

However, it’s not just emerging rural entrepreneurs that have felt the negative impact of slow broadband. For established rural businesses, this has been a hindrance to growth for far too long. Without a reliable connection, businesses are unable to efficiently manage their sales, customer service, social media, payments and much more.

Covid-19 has meant that many businesses have had to quickly upgrade their digital offerings to compensate for an absence of face-to-face interactions. For those unable to access high-speed broadband, the benefits of harnessing innovative enterprise technology to improve productivity and drive sales is not an option.

Even before the pandemic, rural businesses reported that slow internet speeds were a huge obstacle to further growth. A survey conducted by the National Farmers’ Union at the end of 2019 showed that 90 per cent of farmers believed high-speed broadband was essential for their business. A further 26 per cent reported that slow connectivity had been a barrier to further use of digital solutions. For too long, rural areas have been dealt a poor hand when it comes to digital connectivity and this needs to change.

To fully support this endeavour, we must work together to democratise access to connectivity and roll out high-quality, high-speed broadband in rural and hard-to-reach areas. For the most part, superfast broadband has been delivered by FTTC technology with speeds of 30Mbps. While this was sufficient for many households in the past, the surge in demand for data-led services such as videoconferencing and virtual meetings calls for better connectivity.

As businesses continue to evolve, broadband services must adapt alongside them. The roll-out of innovative technology such as the newer FTTP broadband is essential, as it offers the ability to support fast download speeds, large amounts of data and multiple users using the same network. Not just this, but having this infrastructure in place can also support further digitisation, for technologies such as 5G and cloud computing.

As it stands, the fastest UK street’s broadband is more than 5,000 times quicker than the slowest. To provide equal access to opportunities, ISPs and government alike need to work together and prioritise the roll-out of FTTP infrastructure in rural and hard-to-reach areas.

The past year has been challenging for so many across the country. For those that have had little or no access to broadband, it has been even more difficult. We believe that having high-quality internet is a human right, especially in challenging times such as these.

In order to help rural economies to thrive and to permanently lift them out of digital isolation, the roll-out of future-proof broadband technology is essential.

Red Peel is managing director and founder of Airband

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