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New study finds poorest rural areas are missing out on digital connectivity

A new study of Britain’s most deprived communities has revealed a stark digital divide between rural and urban areas. The report, ‘Connecting the Countryside’, which has been commissioned by Vodafone UK with analysis carried out by WPI Economics, found 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. 

Scotland, Wales, East Anglia, Cumbria and the South-West are the worst performing areas of Britain and have been identified as having a lack of connectivity and high levels of deprivation.

With improved connectivity, rural communities would benefit from advances in healthcare, education and agriculture that, in turn, would dramatically improve people’s lives.

Vodafone UK has pledged to close the digital divide between rural and urban areas by delivering on the Government’s 2030 5G coverage ambitions, set out in the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy. They plan to do so by providing 95% of the UK population with 5G standalone coverage by 2030 and extending that to 99% by 2034, as part of its proposed merger with Three UK.

Sarah Lee, Director of Policy at the Countryside Alliance said:

“For far too long rural communities have been left behind when it comes to digital connectivity and are often unable to access the most basic of services online, which many people take for granted. This research shows the stark reality that nearly 5 million people are living within rural not-spots for 5G coverage, and this is disproportionately impacting those living in rural deprived areas compared to urban ones. Those living and working in the countryside on the receiving end of this poor connectivity are only too aware of the benefits that the fast rollout of a nationwide 5G network could bring to their community, and it is now time for these communities to be connected.”

The study identified five areas of Britain as performing particularly poorly when it comes to a lack of connectivity and high levels of deprivation – Scotland, Wales, East Anglia, Cumbria and the South-West. On top if this, over half (53.8%) of the rural constituencies in Wales are total 5G not-spots.

This means 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. Improved connectivity, through investment in digital infrastructure, will help these communities in the long run, as those living in not-spots simply won’t learn the digital skills they need for the future.

Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone UK, said:

“We believe everyone should have access to connectivity and our research shows the alarming rate at which almost a million people living in deprived rural communities are being left behind. It’s clear we need to accelerate the roll-out of the UK’s 5G infrastructure, which is what we commit to do as part of our proposed merger with Three UK. We would close the rural digital divide by delivering 95% 5G Standalone geographic coverage by 2034."

Benefits of 5G to these deprived rural communities include:

  • Transformative health benefits with fast 5G infrastructure offering the ability to pre-empt and react to health emergencies, crucial in hard-to-reach areas.
  • Better access to healthcare, with rural communities often inaccessible medicines can take up to 36 hours to be delivered; with 5G and Vodafone’s Skyport drone programme they can be delivered in just 15 minutes.
  • In rural areas, virtual classrooms could open distance learning opportunities and specialist qualifications – vastly increasing the opportunities available to people.
  • In agricultural areas, 5G enabled sensors can provide data that makes higher yields and better crop quality (tests have shown efficiency improvements of 15%).

Read the full ‘Connecting the Countryside’ report here.

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