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High streets are struggling with the increasing uptake of online shopping, local and central government service provision is becoming more remote, favourable deals on utility services are only available online, people are managing their social lives through websites. This is the reality in which we all live and it can bring many benefits when it is possible to embrace the fast changing online world. If on the other hand you are excluded from this digital world through either not having the appropriate skills or technology available, then day to day life can become increasingly difficult and frustrating. Rural areas are particularly susceptible to the challenges of digital exclusion through skill and technological disparity compared with their urban neighbours, yet are conversely also the areas of England that might benefit the most where distance to key services are greatest.
The potential benefits of digital inclusion for rural areas are clear to understand when considering the average minimum travel times to reach key services (England 2016, Department for Transport). By public transport or walking, the average minimum travel time to the nearest key services is 88.3% greater in rural areas than urban, by cycling it is 100% greater, and even by car it is 36% greater in rural areas. Where services are available digitally the time to access these services is identical whether online in the countryside or online in a city centre (assuming the same level of digital connectivity), so the potential efficiencies of a good online service in a rural setting are clear.
These time efficiencies in a digitally connected rural England are however not available to every person, business or service provider on an equal and fair basis. The OFCOM Connected Nations Report, 2018, highlights how the average download speed in rural locations is significantly slower in a rural setting (34Mbit/s for the overall rural situation compared with 53Mbit/s for urban), and where a decent broadband service is defined as a download speed of just 10Mbit/s and upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s, 7% of premises in rural areas were not able to access a decent broadband service. By contrast only 1% of premises in urban areas do not have access to a decent broadband service. When looking at premises that have access to Superfast broadband coverage (defined as a download speed of at least 30Mbit/s), only 83% of premises in rural areas have this level of access compared to 98% of premises in urban areas. So it is clear that digital connectivity in rural areas is being compromised by the disparity in technology available, despite the greater potential benefits.
In the Office for National Statistic's publication, Exploring the UK's digital divide, it is noted that 'it is important to recognise that digital skills are as important as internet usage. Users of the internet can still be digitally excluded because they lack the skills to be able to confidently and safely navigate the digital world.' So when looking at internet use in the rural context, it is equally important to consider the demography of the population in parallel to the availability of the technology. Rural areas largely have a higher proportion of older residents than do urban, which in using small area mid-year 2017 population estimates shows the rural population being comprised of 10.6% over 75 years old, with urban being 7.6%. In 2018, 55% of over 75 year olds were internet non-users according to the Office for National Statistic's Labour Force Survey, with the proportion of non-users decreasing with diminishing age. Additionally the survey highlighted that a high percentage of lone households with an adult aged 65 and over don't have an internet connection (over 40%). So the rural digital divide has to be approached with an appreciation that rural areas have higher proportions of older residents which in themselves are less likely to choose to or have the skills to take up digital connectivity.
The ONS Internet Access, Opinions and Lifestyle Survey 2018 tells us that the internet is increasingly being used to interact with public authorities or services, with over 40% of internet users obtaining information from websites and submitting completed forms (up from over 30% in 2014), and over 30% downloading official forms (up from over 20% in 2014). This shows how acquiring basic digital skills combined with proper digital connectivity are essential to keeping pace with the digital world, and both of these areas need to be considered and addressed for rural areas. Additionally the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) states that those individuals who acquire basic digital skills can earn between 3% and 10% more than those without. This is particularly pertinent to rural areas where the workplace based average earnings are lower than urban areas, yet with improved connectivity and skills, this gap might be brought down. The Rural England and Scotland's Rural College report, Unlocking the digital potential of rural areas across the UK, estimates that if rural based businesses could overcome the current digital constraints associated to their location it would result in an additional Gross Value Added per annum for the UK of at least £12 billion.
Parity in online access and skills has to be the overall aim for rural communities due to the myriad of benefits that this would bring both currently and into the future, economically and socially. The RSN through its call for a Rural Strategy and the work we undertake with our member authorities will ensure that the causes that are most important to rural communities are given the attention that they deserve and need.
Recent updates to the analyses found within the RSN Observatory include:
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