The lack of reliable high speed broadband is something which many people in rural areas consider to the biggest challenge to their communities. The Government has promised superfast broadband to 90% of UK premises by 2016 but this still leaves approx. 1.3 million homes and businesses without a superfast connection
Our fringe event “broadband: why the final 10% matter?” was a chance to hear from our panellists including Sarah Lee (Head of Policy at the Alliance) and Philip Curry (Senior Public Affairs Advisor at the Federation of Small Businesses) about the importance of broadband to rural communities. Sarah Lee stressed that broadband is now an essential service along with water, gas and electricity and is needed for VAT returns, Basic Payment Scheme applications and job searching. “Government services are being digitalised faster than broadband roll out in rural areas” she said and this is placing additional stress and cost on those who are being left behind.
Philip Curry pointed out that investment in rural broadband would have wider benefits for the country as “every £1 spent by the Government on broadband generated £20 for the economy.” He said that broadband gave small businesses “a window on the world” and businesses who had developed an online presence frequently report growth of around 40%. Both Philip and Sarah agreed that the speed of broadband now needed to be 10mb/minute in order to cope with the demands of rural households and businesses.
There was a good debate between our other two panellists, Tim O’Sullivan from BT and Iain Wood from TalkTalk, about how the final 10% were going to be connected. Both panellists were keen to stress that the UK was leading Europe in broadband delivery and take up. Tim O’Sullivan stated that UK consumers have “the best coverage and lowest prices in Europe.” However he was also keen to stress that BT Group were “not sitting with their arms folded” and BT Openreach were continuing to invest in rural infrastructure through the BDUK contracts. Iain Wood agreed that more needed to be done but questioned whether BT Group as a utility provider and a retailer was delivering best service and value for rural customers. He claimed that the wholesale price of broadband was too high considering the BT Group through Openreach received tax payer money to invest in superfast fibre. Tim O’Sullivan was keen to stress that there was no evidence that whole prices were too high and defended the position of Openreach with the BT Group and was confident that the review being carried out by the regulator Ofcom would not recommend a breakup of the Group. The review is still in its early stages.
It was a lively debate with many questions from the floor calling for greater transparency in the BDUK roll out programme, why some communities were being excluded, and a timescale for delivery. What was clear from the debate is that we are a long way from universal delivery of broadband for the final 10% and the benefits it brings.