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Slow broadband in rural Britain creating an 'us and them' society

Monday, December 8th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Lack of broadband coverage and speeds is putting people in rural areas at a social disadvantage and creating an “us and them” situation, the head of the body representing local councils has said.

Jonathan Owen, CEO of the National Association of Local Councils (NALC), said the level of unhappiness over the lack of high quality broadband in rural areas was creating a rural-urban divide reminiscent of a decade ago.

The NALC, which represents the interests of 9,000 local councils, is one of the bodies to have given evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into rural broadband.

The association is calling for a broadband and digital-only policy strategy that works for rural England, which is said contributes nearly a third of total Gross Value Added to the UK economy.

Speaking to Cable.co.uk after giving evidence to MPs, Mr Owen said: “I’m struck by the strength of the feeling, especially if you go out to visit rural areas coming from London.

“They really can feel that you don’t understand the issue because you’re used to these great speeds.

“I am struck by the emotion that underpins all this. We’re all unhappy about things, but it is at a level which does suggest a real feeling of divide, and ‘us and them; which plays back to all the rural and urban discussions five or 10 years ago when it was all around banning fox hunting and that sort of stuff.

“But it’s almost a similar issue, that the townies don’t understand rural communities, and their perfectly reasonable expectation that they should have the same speeds of broadband as other people.

“It’s an issue of fairness and equity at the end of the day.”

'Two-speed Britain'

Mr Owen said a “two-speed Britain” does not only affect rural businesses, but also leaves people socially disadvantaged.

“Obviously business and economic development is absolutely key and important and the secret to healthy lives,” he said.

“But actually there is a social consequence, a social disadvantage of all this, from kids not being able to do their homework, from single-parents, and parents staying at home to help their children, not being able to help them because of very slow speeds.

“It’s through to things like healthcare. In some areas people get healthcare online which they can’t access in rural areas. It’s keeping in touch with family and friends through things like Skype.

“It’s a whole spectrum of social interaction that some rural communities are being excluded from, things that we take for granted but which in rural communities they don’t really have a look in.”

Mr Owen said people were often presented with a confusing picture when it comes to the percentage that will benefit from rollouts of superfast broadband.

“There’s a community in Hampshire that’s got something like 200 houses and actually 25% of those will have no improvements at the end of the rollout so what are those people going to say?,” he said.

He said BT’s “top-down” approach could alienate rural communities, and said some members had criticised what they called the “village green syndrome”, where fibre cabinets are installed in the middle of a village.

“In fact rural communities are located a long way from the village green and by the time you get a mile down the copper wire any benefits have pretty much disappeared and you’re back down to slow speeds of 2Mbps or less.”

'Most excluded first'

Asked what could be done to improve the situation, Mr Owen said: “I think maybe targeting some of the 5% that won’t be getting fast speeds first and giving them a bit of a route map of how they will get their problems sorted.

“There needs to be a bit more money invested maybe in new technologies that can help with it.

“Sometimes BT’s solution seems to be a bit too mainstream and maybe there night be some alternative providers out there who could do things differently if there was adequate funding to put those most excluded first.

“From our perspective we as representatives of parish and town councils we think our sector has a key role in developing bottom-up solutions.

“But we can only do that if we’re adequately resourced, and we’d like to see some government funds or a share of the business rates to help our councils help their communities to hep themselves and get faster broadband.”

During the select committee session, BT’s group director of strategy, policy and portfolio Sean Williams said that 98.5% of premises would have broadband speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2016, which was “extremely good performance”.

He said: “The targets are realistic so when I tell you 90% get superfast at the end of 2016, they will all get 24Mbps, at least if they want it. There will also be hundreds of thousands of premises that will get a speed improvement but don’t get to the 24Mbps.”

“There may be 1.5% of premises, less than half a million, that won’t get 2Mbps through the current plans. And for them we are continuing to explore other ways to improve speed.”

Image courtesy of Gordon Hatton

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