The government wants every community to have access to super-fast broadband by 2015, with a 25Mb connection and able to download a minimum standard of at least 2Mps. Public money is being invested to upgrade the broadband infrastructure in rural areas across England. While internet access is vital for many people who live, work in and visit rural places, how can we ensure that these targets are met, particularly for hard-to-reach communities? Will this investment lead to an online revolution or will rural areas be left even further behind? – Jessica Sellick investigates.
In July 2010, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a speech on ‘broadband – delivering the rural revolution’. She described how “the broadband revolution has passed by too many of our rural villages and remote areas. Many have inconsistent access, or speeds so slow they are all but unusable. Many more, of course, have no access at all... We all need a vibrant working countryside – and not just those of us that live there – rolling out superfast broadband is probably the single most important thing we can do to ensure the sustainability of our rural communities and businesses”. Spelman’s views were supported by figures from Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK), a unit within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which found 8% of households in England had no or slow access to broadband in 2010 with the highest proportion of households comprising sparse hamlet and isolated dwellings (47% of households in this settlement type compared to 5% in urban areas). The average broadband speed in less sparse urban areas was 12Mbits/s and in less sparse villages 4Mbit/s.
To overcome this divide, in December 2010, DCMS and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published ‘Britain’s superfast broadband future’, a document setting out the Government’s overarching vision. This explains how rural and remote areas of the country should benefit from infrastructure upgrade whilst recognising the work of the Broadband Stakeholder Group which found the cost of deploying superfast broadband to the last 10% of households can be up to 3 times higher than for the first two-thirds of the population.
Since then, the government has allocated £530 million during the current the Spending Review to stimulate investment in ‘delivering digital Britain’. £294 million has been put aside for English counties to bring high-speed internet to areas not catered for by the private sector (from £17,130,000 for Cumbria to £630.000 for the West Midlands covering Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton). To bid for government funding, local authorities must produce Local Broadband Plans (LBPs). Once approved, an authority can procure a supplier to undertake work needed to improve the broadband infrastructure in its area.
The Rural Community Broadband Fund (RCBF) was launched in November 2011 with confirmed funding of £20 million (provided by Defra and BDUK). RCBF is part of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) and provides grants to communities to establish superfast broadband in hard-to-reach areas. The funding can be used for capital works, technical support costs and other establishment costs (but not for ongoing maintenance and running costs). The first round for Expressions of Interest closed at the end of January, with a second round expected to open in April 2012. BDUK itself is developing a Rural Community Broadband Toolkit containing material to support the development of local projects, including a Community Data Book.
Most recently, in February 2012, the House of Lords announced an inquiry into super-fast broadband. Chaired by Lord Inglewood, the Select Committee will examine if the coalition’s £530 million investment is being applied effectively, whether broadband speeds are the best way of measuring digital progress, and (particularly relevant to RSN members) what is being done to ensure rural areas are not being left further behind. The Committee’s Call for Evidence closes on 13 March 2012.
What does the Government’s strategy, funding streams and Select Committee inquiry all mean for rural communities? Will superfast broadband be delivered across rural England and if so how will it affect the ways in which people view, listen and use media content? Will it change e-commerce and the provision of public services? I offer three points.
First, to what extent will the government’s targeted programmes and resources overcome entrenched rural-urban inequalities? On the one hand, Government departments describe the importance of providing difficult, hard to reach and/or remote rural communities with broadband; on the other hand, rarely do they define (in geographical terms) what they mean. How lines are drawn on a map to distinguish urban from rural, rural from remote rural and/or rural from hard to reach rural is vital, for it affects whether or not a given area receives investment. For local authorities this issue becomes even more complex. When completing LBPs no specific guidance is provided to Councils when setting out their current broadband position and evidence of needs/gaps (although using baseline coverage and infrastructure provided by BDUK is suggested). Unlike the previous Labour administration, the present Coalition Government does not separate out universal commitments with its drive to provide superfast broadband in more difficult to reach areas. Is it possible for superfast broadband to be rolled out to urban and all rural areas in parallel? Will the digital divide actually widen between different types of rural areas? How can we ensure investment is fairly spread across the country? The RSN believes that digital infrastructure should not bypass any rural area in terms of implementation timetabling, speed, bandwidth or reliability.
Second, is it possible to open up and co-ordinate our existing infrastructure to bring down the costs of laying new fibre, stimulating investment in next generation networks so that superfast broadband can be rolled out? What kinds of infrastructure are needed in rural areas? But also, what kinds of technology are practical, sustainable, future proof and provide value-for-money? Whilst many local authorities are looking to reuse existing infrastructure such as ducts and public service networks to drive down costs and make investment go further, there are often legal and commercial challenges in doing so. Similarly, Socitm, a membership association for IT professionals working in local authorities and across the public sector, has identified how many Councils are struggling to find match funding to draw down BDUK money!
Third, there are a number of excellent examples showcasing how community groups have overcome market failure and installed broadband. The community co-operative Cybermoor has ensured that in the sparsely populated parish of Alston Moor, homes have high speed broadband. NextGenUs is a Community Interest Company focused on delivering high speed fibre to homes and businesses in rural areas across the UK where the big players say it is uneconomical to do so. B4RN is a community-wide cooperative in the Forest of Bowland and Lune Valley providing broadband to eight rural parishes. Finally, Northlew, a rural community on Dartmoor forgotten by mainstream broadband providers, has built its own network and now has more than 200 subscribers. The Community Broadband Network (CBN) and The Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA) are both umbrella organisations that rural communities can go to for advice, or be signposted to sources of knowledge and expertise from which they can learn and gain help.
Broadband is a key priority for the Government and has resulted in a plethora of strategies, funding pots and initiatives spread across departments and agencies. It is perhaps timely then that a House of Lord Select Committee is looking at whether these activities are meeting the needs of our “bandwidth hungry” nation. A cautionary note is needed here because the digital future for rural communities is inextricably linked to the rural economy Growth Review, the National Planning Policy Framework, the Big Society, localism, public services reform, health, social care and so on. It is crucial that policy-makers do not impose ‘online solutions’ to ‘offline issues’ – superfast broadband is a means rather than an end that should be used to meet the needs and aspirations of rural communities and not to widen the digital divide any further.
To explore these issues further, the Rural Services Network is holding a seminar on broadband and overcoming the digital divide 6 March 2012 at East Riding of Yorkshire Council in Beverley. The programme will include presentations from Daniel Heery (Cybermoor), Guy Jarvis (NextGenUs) and Malcolm Corbett (INCA), with plenty of time for group discussions and networking. Places are limited to 50 delegates.