The Countryside Alliance held a debate at the Labour Party Conference on 26th September. The event, entitled “Tackling digital exclusion in the countryside” is reported on below.
- Tim Bonner, chief executive, Countryside Alliance
- Chi Onwurah MP, shadow minister for culture and the digital economy
- Tim O’Sullivan, head of public affairs, BT
- Ben Briggs, editor, Farmers Guardian
- Jessica Tompkinson, community engagement manager, Three
Tim Bonner set the context for the discussion saying that though access and universal broadband coverage were important, digital skills were also needed to help tackle exclusion.
Tim O’Sullivan began by addressing the situation regarding roll out. He recognised the frustration of the 5-9 per cent not yet reached and said BT would play its part in finding a solution for universal connectivity. BT had learnt from its successful role out in Cornwall, he said, and saw the importance for small and rural businesses contributing to UK PLC. The next step after super-fast would be ultra-fast he said, which KPMG forecast would bring in a further £20-30bn to the UK economy.
He agreed the other pillar to increasing digital inclusion was skills and said BT welcomed changes to the national curriculum to include more digital skills, as well as programmes to encourage more girls, older people or other less engaged groups involved.
Jess Tomkinson outlined Three’s skills and inclusion programme, which had already worked with over 2000 different groups this year.
She said she’s initially been surprised with the requests for help they’d received from those running small businesses, but that they had worked with all sorts of people and the results could be wonderful. Three wanted to find out what was stopping people going online then give them the practical skills to change this.
Ben Briggs said farmers tended to be slightly behind the curve on digital technology. Access to technology and speed could put them off he said, whilst many were suspicious of the internet even if they had those requirements covered.
He reflected on the fact that farmers needed to do a lot more online but often did not have the connectivity or the confidence.
Chi Onwurah said she had never expected to become a champion for rural economies being the MP for central Newcastle, but that she brought expertise from her background as an engineer and having worked for Ofcom.
The last Labour Government had been working towards universal broadband coverage by 2012 and Onwurah had expected the Coalition Government to help achieve this, but had been disappointed. “I think it’s disgraceful that in 2016 some people still can’t get a broadband speed fast enough to download an email.
She also recognised the other barriers to digital inclusion, including fear and a lack of skills. The Government needed to support the provision of digital education, as the digital economy was the future economy, she said.
“The opportunities are huge” she stated, but if 10 per cent were left behind an underclass would be created which would undermine society and democracy.
Ian Wood from TalkTalk said OpenReach was letting people down and that it was not just about access and skills but also affordability of getting online. Superfast was twice the price of what it should be and low income groups needed to be supported he said.
Tim O’Sullivan replied stating that the UK had one of the most competitive broadband markets in the world and that TalkTalk’s investment in it was questionable. He said BT wanted to see the competitive landscape flourish and to see more investment from others.
Chi Onwurah said that one reason she moved from engineering in to politics is that she could design the best network ever, but that it would only get used if people had the skills to use it and money to pay for it.
She said that the UK had had the most competitive broadband market, but this was no longer the case due to the way the broadband tender had been mishandled. There was no proper competition and BT was in a monopoly positon she thought.
O’Sullivan highlighted that Virgin was available in approximately 50 per cent of the country. Others could use the Openreach network or build their own.
Turning to skills, Tomkinson spoke about the efficacy of trainer to trainer projects to help multiply the reach of digital training.
Briggs said the demand for skills training was potentially huge, but delivering it in the right way, in which people felt comfortable, was a challenge. He suggested taking more initiatives in to community and business settings.
In response to a question on how a Labour government could help the situation, Onwurah said a more proactive government response was needed. She said Labour would support trainers going in to communities and schools and would encourage the development of less complex ‘starter devices’.
A representative from Arquiva asked whether the fulfilment of the universal service obligation would be the solution to affordability.
Onwurah replied that the USO was there to provide a floor, so should be the answer to the access issue. She said a vision of what people wanted to achieve should be built, so a plan could be developed to achieve this.
O’Sullivan agreed saying that ten megabits shouldn’t be the ceiling of ambition and that plans needed to be future proof.
Digital UK, the providers of Freeview, said nobody found using a TV complicated so the role of TV could be important. Older consumers might find digital interaction via a TV less of an obstacle.
Tompkinson said there hadn’t been much demand for the use of internet on the TV in her experience, but Onwurah thought it could be an avenue to explore alongside more community and local infrastructure. She did agree that there was some conflict between TV as a lean back technology and the internet as a lean forward technology though.
Bonner asked Briggs whether they were in danger of patronising their own community.
Briggs said no one size fits all and a lot of the rural community were extremely competent. However he said that they did have an aging population and they needed to be taken with them. He thought TV could be a “slowly slowly” approach and that appropriate technology should be used for appropriate groups.
The Wireless Infrastructure Group said wireless would be important for the last five per cent. They asked whether the panel thought there would be a combination of mobile and fixed technology and when they would get access to BT’s ducks.
O’Sullivan said BT was investing in both fixed and wireless.
Onwurah said wireless was certainly part of the solution but that the more broadband capacity needed, the further out wireless infrastructure needed to go in to rural areas. She also spoke of the need to be able to move seamlessly between fixed and wireless networks.
Turning back to skills, she said the current situation was unacceptable, where there were people living in the UK who could not participate with the digital economy or digital services. She said the Government needed to be held to account.
Tomkinson said she’d seen examples of local councils (e.g. Islington Council) turning down their offers for training as they said they did not have the resources to attend.
Briggs said it was important for the Countryside Alliance to continue pushing the agenda and that rural communities could not be an afterthought.
O’Sullivan concluded that everyone had a role to play: digital was at the core of the economy and shouldn’t just be considered an add on.