The government is not doing enough to tackle the digital divide between rural and urban areas, a committee of MPs has warned.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) published its inquiry into the rural challenges of gaining access to superfast broadband, 4G and accessing online services.
Ofcom has long been concerned at the digital divide in the UK. In 2016 it found that the digital divide had fallen by one million people since 2015. But that still meant that 1.4 million homes and businesses in the UK – around five percent of properties – were unable to sign up for broadband speeds typically required to meet a household’s needs.
Now the EFRA has published its findings after conducting an inquiry into the digital divide, and it concluded that the divide “continues to marginalise communities and be the cause of frustration.”
“Despite significant improvement in both rural broadband and mobile coverage in recent years, it has only barely kept up with increasing demand,” said the MPs. “Poor connectivity continues to hinder rural businesses and is preventing people from engaging with online public services the rest of the country take for granted.”
The report welcomed the ambition of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnston, who had called for fibre to the premise (FTTP) to be made available to “every home in the land” within five years.
The government has in the past set a goal of 2033 for the rollout of fibre to all premises, a target Johnson had called “laughably unambitious”.
The government’s universal service obligation’ (USO) has pledged to ensure that homes in the UK receive a minimum speed of 10Mbps, but the EFRA report says that obligation will be obsolete soon after introduction.
And it doubts that FTTP target of 2025 will be achieved “without potentially controversial reforms.”
The EFRA report recommends a “rural roaming” solution that is needed to tackle partial “not-spots” in mobile coverage in the absence of a forthcoming agreement between Government and Mobile Network Operators.
“Despite improvements in coverage since our predecessor’s Report, our inquiry has shown that poor broadband and mobile data services continue to marginalise rural communities, particularly those living in hard to reach areas,” explained Neil Parish MP, the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
“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 Parish. “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 and an “outside-in” approach to full fibre roll out, ensuring that rural areas are prioritised in the future,” he said. “We also welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment to achieve universal full-fibre broadband by 2025.”
“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,” he added.
“In addition, on the eve of 5G mobile data services, people in rural areas will increasingly feel like second class citizens if they can’t access 4G or even 3G services,” said Parish. “Rural roaming must be seen as a solution, if no voluntary proposal is agreed between mobile network operators and Government.”
“The problem of poor connectivity in rural areas has gone on for far too long,” he concluded. “With so many of our public services now delivered primarily online, it is imperative that this problem is resolved and that rural communities are granted the same digital access as the majority of their urban counterparts.”
At least one expert agreed that decent broadband for rural areas remains an ongoing issue.
“Access to a decent broadband connection for rural communities is a serious problem and it’s understandable the EFRA concluded the current specification of the broadband USO lacks ambition,” said Alex Tofts, broadband expert at Broadband Genie.
“Our own research found only 27 percent think the current specification of 10Mbps+ is an acceptable target,” said Tofts. “However, it’s important to remember this is only a minimum target, in most cases users should be able to enjoy higher speeds.”
“The rural broadband landscape is looking rosier: the number of properties that cannot get access to a decent broadband connection is down to 578,000, from 860,000 within a year,” he said. “However, if 4G is going to be used to plug the fixed-line coverage, it must be affordable and deliver value for money for rural broadband users who may have no other options.”