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Connected communities: how to unleash the rural economy through better connectivity

On Wednesday 22 May Onward and Vodafone hosted a panel debate on how to unleash the rural economy through better connectivity. On the panel was the Secretary of State for Defra, Steve Barclay MP, Simon Fell MP the government’s Rural Connectivity Champion,  Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK and Sarah Lee, Director of Policy, Countryside Alliance.

Sarah spoke about the importance of good connectivity in rural areas and the progress that has been made, but there is still more to do. You can read the Countryside Alliance’s perspective below or you can watch the panel debate here.

The Countryside Alliance surveyed rural communities in 2021 on the most important issues that will strengthen the rural economy. With thousands of responses, which just shows the strength of feeling about the importance of the rural economy, 70% of respondents felt good digital infrastructure was the most important issue to boost the rural economy.

Respondents were concerned that slow speeds were a barrier to growth, the lack of connectivity was leading to increased isolation and social exclusion, and that fibre connectivity should be available to all, no matter where they live.

Delivering a strong economy, increased productivity and thriving communities cannot be achieved without recognising the vital role the countryside has to play in boosting our productivity. The Great Rural Revival report has identified the potential for a remarkable £65 billion surge in the UK economy, all stemming from the enhancement of rural digital connectivity. The report zeroes in on four pivotal sectors that constitute the backbone of the UK’s rural economy: tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, and small businesses. The analysis paints a picture of how connectivity enhancements could lead to a substantial 7% rise in rural employment, creating 284,000 fresh job opportunities.

Further research from the Countryside Alliance conducted with Gigaclear in 2021 also found that 80% of rural businesses agreed that ultrafast fibre connectivity would have the single biggest positive impact on their business recovery post-Covid, ranking above Government subsidy; 32% estimated it would help them recover twice as fast.

This all shows what huge potential there is for the rural economy if we can improve digital connectivity. However, the absence of broadband infrastructure serving small firms threatens the expansion of it. The business opportunity includes 28% of all UK firms and over one million small businesses.

A report issued by Vodafone in November 2023 found that nearly half (46%) of rural deprived areas are classed as 5G not-spots, whereas the same can only be said for 2.7% of urban deprived communities. As a result, almost a million (838,000) people living in deprived rural areas are losing out on the benefits that 5G could provide – from better access to healthcare to more educational opportunities.

Ofcom’s Connected Nations report, published in December 2023, provided further evidence of rural areas lagging behind urban areas in 5G access, 5G installations on mobile network infrastructure, 4G outdoor availability and 4G and voice indoor availability.

To add to these woes the damning report from the National Audit Office earlier this year on mobile connectivity has highlighted how rural areas are falling behind in the rollout of coverage. It says delays in building new masts mean that it is currently unclear if the programme will meet its target of increasing 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by December 2025, and raises concerns about its affordability.

A total of £1bn is to be spent over 20 years to 2039-40 to deliver and maintain 4G coverage through the Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme. The report said it is behind schedule, as "local delivery of the programme has proved more difficult than planned timetables allowed for".

So what do we want to see happen – it is clear that poor digital connectivity has stymied the growth potential of countless rural communities and economies, and while there have been strides in bolstering digital connectivity within rural communities, a conspicuous digital divide persists between urban and rural landscapes.

We support government proposals in recent consultations for policy interventions to improve digital connectivity and agree that an alternative approach is required to ensure hard to reach premises can receive a gigabit-capable connection. We are concerned, however, about where the funding will come from and when that will be delivered.

For the levelling up agenda to truly have an impact in rural communities not only do we need to invest in digital infrastructure but we need to also invest in digital skills, however there are still going to be individuals who will be unable to access the internet and remain isolated. The Good Things Foundation has highlighted the economic impact of digital skills and inclusion in the UK. Their report finds that an investment of £1.4 billion could reap economic benefits of £13.7 billion for UK plc. This is £9.48 return for every £1 invested and £1.4 billion in efficiency savings for the government.

To see the rural economy truly prosper, and take advantage of current and future technology, there needs to be a levelling up of digital infrastructure between rural and urban areas – that means investment from both the government and private sectors working together to deliver the infrastructure which in turn opens up opportunities for online businesses, e-commerce, and remote work, thereby stimulating economic growth and generating job opportunities.

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