The Countryside Alliance hosted a fringe event on digital skills at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Brighton on Monday 19 September. The event, entitled Tackling Digital Exclusion in the Countryside, was an opportunity to discuss how best to tackle a lack of skills and confidence in using digital technology which faces many rural communities and businesses.

Julian Ashworth, Global Director of Policy at BT, outlined the work being done by BT as part of the BDUK contract with the Government to deliver the infrastructure for high speed broadband across the country. He defended BT’s record on delivery but also acknowledged that “getting coverage is not job done” as the next challenge is take-up. Julian did not think that economic factors were an obstacle to take-up as he claimed that “the UK has the most affordable broadband in Europe.”

Jessica Tompkinson, Community Engagement Manager at the network provider Three, outlined some of the obstacles to people getting online, such as fears about safety and security, and the work of Three’s digital skills and development programme in tackling these. Jessica spoke about the training sessions that Three provide and remarked “it is astonishing how many people own a tablet or smart phone and don’t know what they can do with it.” A member of the audience pointed out that it is no good holding training sessions in the town when bus services are being reduced as many older people rely on public transport. Jessica acknowledged that travel distance could be an obstacle to providing training and said that Three was investing in more mobile and in-the-home training sessions to reach sparely populated areas.

Heather Kidd, Liberal Democrat councillor on Shropshire Council and Deputy Chair of the Local Government Association’s People and Places Board, spoke about the challenges of connectivity in rural Ludlow. Heather said “sparsely populated rural areas – the final 5% – drop off the face of the Earth when it comes to broadband connectivity.” She said that with local government funding being reduced it was vital that private sector organisations, like BT and Three, filled the gap in helping to deliver digital skills.  A member of the audience said that more should also be done by housing developers to ensure that houses are “digital friendly” by making sure that the junction box is not on the floor as many people find it hard to reach.