DEMAND for mobile access to broadband will continue to grow rapidly in rural areas, writes Brian Wilson.
In early September the Rural Services Network hosted a meeting of the UK Rural Policy & Practitioners Group, which shares research and policy experience among interested organisations. The meeting included a fascinating presentation from Dr Jane Atterton of the Scottish Agricultural College, about its Rural Scotland in Focus 2012 report.
One finding from that report, which struck home, was that urban Scotland is forging ahead with faster and faster broadband connectivity, whilst much of rural Scotland was struggling to obtain a basic, reliable broadband service. The urban-rural gap is widening, not closing. There followed discussion about whether it was realistic to consider access to broadband as a modern necessity or even, perhaps, "a right".
The Scottish report also highlights that the way the internet is accessed has altered rapidly. It is not long since the choice was essentially between a dial-up connection or a broadband one through the fixed copper wire. Now the infrastructure includes copper and fibre, optic cable, satellite and mobile devices. The Oxford Internet Survey found that by 2011 some 36% of internet users in Britain were accessing it by mobile phone.
This trend looks set to continue, with one prediction being that, worldwide, mobile data traffic will rise 18-fold over the coming five years. Subsequent generations of mobile phones – 3G and soon 4G – will be required for the speed and bandwidth needed to access many internet services of the future.
Straying further afield, the importance of mobile connectivity with smartphones and tablets has been highlighted, in an eye-opening article for the International Development Communities (IDC), about its extraordinary growth in Africa.
Just over a decade ago, Nigeria had just 100,000 phone lines, almost all of them landlines. Today, the country has close to 100 million mobile phone lines. In October last year the number of Nigerian internet users accessing it from mobile devices overtook the number accessing it from a desktop.
The article explains how mobile phones are transforming Africa in seven ways – through banking, citizen activism, education, entertainment, disaster management, agriculture and healthcare.
Which brings us back to rural England and the Government's reminder, in its Rural Statement 2012, that it plans to invest up to £150 million to improve reception through the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP). The objectives for this capital expenditure by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) are to bring mobile coverage to 60,000 premises which currently receive no signal from any of the mobile network operators and to improve coverage along 10 trunk roads which suffer from 'not-spots'.
The MIP project will target areas where commercial investment in infrastructure is unlikely to happen and these will largely be rural areas. Five companies have been identified as potential providers and delivery is expected to occur between 2012 and 2015.
It is not clear what proportion of the project will be within England. DCMS maps indicate that most of the 'not-spots' and so many of the benefiting premises would be in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, though six of the ten trunk roads targeted are in England.
On the face of it, the MIP project should prove very valuable to those living or working in the targeted 'not-spot' areas, giving them a means of internet access. How powerful that will be may depend on the type of infrastructure installed – will it at least be 3G?
Among the beneficiaries could be farmers in some of the least accessible locations for broadband connectivity. A survey by the National Farmers Union has found that two out of every three farmers using the internet say they would benefit from access to superfast mobile broadband (4G networks). They would use it for transactions with suppliers and customers, and for administrative tasks such as banking or completing online forms.
What the MIP project does not address is the wider issue of poor reception and signal loss for those who are travelling round rural areas. Users want to see their chosen mobile network extending across more of rural England.
Broadband access continues to be a major concern for those representing or working with rural communities and businesses. It affects so many areas of modern life. What seems clear is that mobile coverage is going to play an ever increasing part in that access, including the imminent plans to start rolling out fourth generation (4G) networks.