What's being done to boost connectivity in rural areas - and why this matters

What's being done to boost connectivity in rural areas - and why this matters

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It has long been known that rural areas typically lag behind urban locations when it comes to broadband speeds, but the government now seems to be putting more effort into bringing this to a stop with a raft of new funding.
A new Rural Broadband Infrastructure Scheme has been announced this month that will see grants of £45 million allocated to local authorities that have already applied for funding in places where broadband speeds are currently 30Mbps or less.
This adds to the £30 million investment announced last year, bringing the total proposed spend on rural broadband to £75 million. The money is to be used to support full fibre networks wherever possible.
Rural affairs minister Lord Gardiner said the planned investment aims to champion the communities and businesses in the countryside.
He added: "Rural areas should not be left behind in the connectivity slow lane, missing out on the opportunities high-speed broadband can bring."
Previous success from faster rural broadband
Perhaps the government has been spurred on to act and invest more after figures showed that rural areas benefiting from better broadband are reaping other rewards, too.
According to an official report entitled 'The Evaluation of the Economic Impact and Public Value of the Superfast Broadband Programme', local businesses in areas where superfast broadband has been rolled out have enjoyed a combined £9 billion increase in turnover in the months since the installation.
This has equated to a £690 million net increase in Gross Value Added to the UK economy and a £12.28 benefit to every business for every pound invested by the government and local authorities.
Minister for digital Margot James said: "Our rollout of superfast broadband across the UK has been the most challenging infrastructure project in a generation but is one of our greatest successes."
Where rural broadband is now
The government's rollout of superfast broadband and this new investment means nationwide coverage has reached 95.39 per cent, even in some areas previously labelled 'commercially unviable'.
Furthermore, a Universal Service Obligation means everyone in the UK should have access to fast and affordable broadband by 2020, followed by nationwide gigabit capable (1000Mbps) connectivity by 2033.
However, despite these success stories, much still needs to be done and questions are regularly raised about the likelihood of reaching these ambitious targets.
Recent data collected by M-Lab and compiled by UK broadband comparison site Cable found that the UK has slipped down several places in the league table for global broadband ratings, from 31st place last year to 35th this year.
The UK was in the bottom third of the EU member states, despite average broadband speeds going up by 12 per cent to 18.5Mbps.
Embarrassingly, this came in the same week of July that the government's National Infrastructure Commission called for full-fibre broadband to be deployed around the UK by 2033.
Part of this decline is undoubtedly driven by poor access in rural areas, as statistics recently published by the county councils network show that broadband speeds in countryside locations are up to three times slower than those in neighbouring cities.
This was even the case when the cities were located in the same county - for example, York could enjoy speeds of 102Mbps, but north Yorkshire on average could only reach 30.2Mbps.
Vice-chairman of the county councils network Philip Atkins said: "Counties are great places to live and work, but these figures show that businesses in shire counties and rural areas are being left at a competitive disadvantage. While the government has announced investment in this area, we remain concerned that digital infrastructure in counties isn't getting the attention it desperately needs."
The trouble with rural broadband
Most people in the UK still get at least part of their broadband connection delivered via the old copper telephone network - and the further people live from the telephone exchange, the further the connection has to travel and the slower the signal gets.
With a quarter of UK businesses based in the countryside and almost a fifth of the nation's people living there, this old network is becoming insufficient to support modern everyday requirements.
Hopefully, the new raft of government funding should go a long way towards addressing this by replacing copper cables with full fibre in as many locations as possible. This should ensure that residents not only benefit from better broadband services, but that the British economy also reaps the rewards in the long run.


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