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Study highlights widening urban-rural broadband divide

Monday, September 7th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

The gap in broadband speed between urban and rural areas is widening, risking damage to businesses and driving young people away from areas they grew up, a study has found.

The academic study is said to highlight the true nature of the divide between those living in remote rural parts of Britain and the rest of the country.

The study, Two-Speed Britain: Rural Internet Use, is part of the Oxford Internet Surveys and was carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute with the RCUK Digital Economy Research Hub.

According to the research, more than one million people in Britain are excluded or struggle to get involved in normal online activities because they live in remote rural areas with no access to high-speed broadband.

By looking at ‘deep rural’ (remote), ‘shallow rural’ (less remote) and urban internet users, researchers said they could highlight the true nature of the divide.

According to their research, in urban areas just 5% of those sampled had an average broadband speed below 6.3Mbps.

But in deep rural areas, more than half (53%) of people couldn’t even achieve that speed, at which researchers said an album of 10 songs would typically take about a minute to download, 200 photographs just over four minutes, and a movie about 18 minutes.

Principal investigator of the Oxford Internet Surveys, Dr Grant Blank, from the University of Oxford, said: “This is the first time we have captured data to clearly show the depth of the divide between those living in remote rural parts of Britain and the rest of the country.

“The digital gap is not just due to age, income or education.

'Online opportunities'

“We show that slower broadband speeds are barring many rural communities from engaging in the social or commercial online opportunities enjoyed by those in towns and cities.”

According to the report, the gap affects 1.3m people in deep rural Britain, and 9.2m people in less remote, or ‘shallow’, areas with poor internet connection.

It is most pronounced in upland areas of Scotland, Wales and England, but also in many areas in lowland rural Britain.

Professor John Farrington, of the University of Aberdeen and lead author of the report, said: ''This broadband speed gap between urban and especially deep rural areas is widening: it will begin to narrow as superfast reaches more rural areas but better-connected, mostly urban, areas will also increase speeds at a high rate.

“This means faster areas will probably continue to get faster and faster, with slow speed areas left lagging behind."

He said rural businesses are effectively “penalised” because they cannot take advantage of efficiencies the internet brings or have to resort to the use of more costly paper systems.

“These issues can potentially create a new tipping point for poorly connected rural areas,” he added.

“Effects could include losing businesses; adding to farming costs; making out-migration more likely for young people and in-migration less likely for retirees or the economically active.”

The CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, recently warned that getting broadband and mobile coverage is still a “postcode lottery” for many businesses.

President Henry Robinson's comments came just weeks after the government announced that its superfast broadband rollout programme has reached more than 3m UK homes and businesses.

It said the rollout, which aims to deliver internet speeds of 24Mbps or faster to those properties not covered by existing commercial networks, is on track to take superfast access to 95% of the UK by 2017.

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