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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

Closing the digital divide: why rural broadband matters


Many UK citizens are at risk of being excluded by a rapidly growing gap in broadband access. We spoke to Matt Powell from Broadband Genie about how improvements to rural broadband are critical to ensure a significant proportion of the country does not miss out on the opportunities afforded by modern, high-speed internet service.

Image of woman using keyboardAs we become more reliant on the internet for day to day life there’s a growing risk that some people will be at a disadvantage due to a lack of suitable internet connectivity - the so called "digital divide".

The internet is not only convenient for tasks like banking and shopping but provides many opportunities for education, health and mental wellbeing. Those without access will find themselves increasingly shut out from modern life.

The digital divide is a wide reaching problem. While groups such as the disabled, unemployed or elderly are vulnerable, it is especially troublesome for rural communities where it can impact everybody regardless of health, finances or education.

The latest Ofcom home broadband performance report found that rural areas had an average download speed of 13.7Mbps. That is above the 10Mbps that the government is suggesting should be the national minimum but compares poorly to urban and suburban areas - which enjoy averages of 50.5Mbps and 30.7Mbps respectively - and the overall UK average of 28.9Mbps.

As online services adapt to cater to users with high speed connections, rural areas will only find their online experience becomes worse if broadband speeds are slow to improve. Even basic web browsing is becoming more demanding as average page sizes increase.

Also troubling are the statistics for upload speed. The Ofcom report found that while the average UK upload speed was 3.7Mbps, rural broadband averaged just 1.6Mbps. Although upload is not something many home users are concerned about, it is vital for businesses. If rural businesses are unable to gain access to affordable broadband upgrades they may consider moving elsewhere. This could have further knock-on effects for the community in terms of employment and investment.

There are projects underway which aim to improve things. The rural broadband programme and superfast extension programme aim to deliver high speed internet to 95 per cent of the UK by 2017. But while definitely a positive sign that is still some way off for those currently stuck with inadequate connectivity, even assuming it’s completed on schedule. There’s also uncertainty about the remaining five per cent of premises. 

The government’s plans could also be viewed as short-sighted. While George Osborne may have pledged 100Mbps broadband for all in the budget, BDUK defines 'superfast' broadband as anything over 24Mbps. 24Mbps would be an improvement for many rural communities right now but it won’t be long before they’re once again feeling the pinch, and it’s already significantly slower than the options available to urban and suburban areas. If we wish to avoid the same issues cropping up in a few years time there needs to be some consideration for future proofing rather than short term quick fixes.

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