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Farming body warns of broadband 'no man's land' in rural areas

Thursday, December 18th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

People in remote areas of the UK are being left in “no man's land” when it comes to getting broadband, according to the head of an organisation that represents farmers.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said people in rural areas are becoming increasingly frustrated at having either no broadband, or slow broadband.

Mr Dunn made his comments after telling the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee that the country is almost in a state of “digital apartheid” due to the “digital by default” agenda.

Digital by default will see most government services moved online, including applications for EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) schemes.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk, Mr Dunn said: “We obviously represent people who live in remote areas of the country where they’re either without fixed line provision or where they are quite a distance away from the nearest exchange.

“Therefore they do find themselves in no man's land from the perspective of getting fixed-line provision for broadband.”

A universal broadband speed target of 2Mbps is already “pretty historic” in terms of how useful it is in a modern context, Mr Dunn said, echoing his description to MPs of it as “an historical anachronism”.

“Most people are saying that they need about 10Mbps in order to deal with modern day communications etc so there is a concern about connectivity per se and a concern about lack of speed,” he said.

'Smoke and mirrors'

He criticised the “smoke and mirrors” around the figures of how many premises would be reached by the Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) project.

The government has set a target of bringing superfast broadband (speeds of 24Mbps and above) to 90% of the UK by 2016, rising to 95% by the end of the following year through an extension programme.

“There is frustration about the extent to which BDUK have met their targets and the extent to which there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors around the figures," Mr Dunn said.

“They can quote 97% as much as they like on the basic standards but the 3% of people who aren’t covered are occupying probably 50% of the area of the country.

“If they’ve been given money to reach the hard to reach they can’t use the excuse that people who haven’t yet got connectivity are hard to reach."

The TFA wants minimum universal speeds of 10Mbps as a basic requirement across the country, but he said digital skills are also important as people are forced to move to digital systems.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘we are going to go for a digital by default solution’. It’s another thing to ensure that people are able to access that digital by default solution.

“The delivery end is trying to do all it can in our view to try and help people through the system, but there is an evangelical target which is ‘everyone will do it digitally’, which seems to be an immovable feast.”

Mantra

Mr Dunn called for more attention on community-based programmes, and for a form of voucher scheme similar to Wales to help people access satellite broadband where necessary.

“And we definitely need, whilst we wait for the solutions, for the government to stop using the digital by default mantra for everything it wants to do in life, because it means that a significant proportion of the country – but I agree a relatively small proportion of the population – get left out.”

Giving evidence to the committee last week, BDUK chief executive Chris Townsend said the programme is on schedule to deliver 90% by early 2016.

Asked how rural communities could cope with speeds of less than 2Mbps, he said there were commercial options they could buy such as satellite systems and BDUK is looking into how it could subsidise the technology in 2015.

He said: “We are working very hard on these alternative technologies. We are now very positive about the additional satellite technologies that are being made available, which we can deploy from next year onwards."

At the same hearing Sara Eppel, head of Defra’s Rural Communities Policy Unit, told MPs: “A criticism has been that there has been a focus on towns first and not out to the rural areas, but it is a bit like building a spider web.

“You start from the middle and you build out, going from the exchange to cabinet to cabinet. That is why there is that kind of network approach.

“The further we get along with the delivery, the more rural it gets and, as you know, the more challenging it gets technically.”

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