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In one of our previous blog posts: ‘They may say that, we couldn’t possibly comment’ we discussed the suggestions that BT Retail has been gaining a commercial advantage as a result of winning multiple contracts to supply rural areas with super-fast broadband under the BDUK scheme.  It is now being suggested that a lack of broadband in rural areas (namely in Scotland) may drive people to leave rural communities for urban areas that have faster Internet speeds and that this is leading to a decline in rural population.

Paul

Paul Heritage-Redpath, Product Manager

Last week, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment , Richard Lochhead said:

“The Scottish Government is very keen to step in with Scottish resources to try and ensure that we do all we can to connect our more remote and rural communities to the 21st century.
While you have traditional conversations about people leaving rural communities due to lack of access to higher education, affordable housing or employment, now there is an added factor where there is not good connectivity that can also lead to rural depopulation.

Some research I have seen in the last year or so has started to show some evidence of that, and that should concern us all.”

According to The Herald Scotland, ministers announced that this year alone, a staggering £264 million has been invested in high-speed fibre optic broadband and £146m for faster broadband in the Highlands and Islands.

It’s worth pondering what would really happen if rural areas don’t start getting super-fast broadband. It could quite easily mean a super-fast decline of the rural population, across the country.

A fast connection is becoming much more important in our tech savvy and IP-reliant world and has even started affecting house prices. The Daily Telegraph reported in late 2012 that home-buyers ranked a fast broadband connection above off-street parking and local amenities when considering a new property and that it could even add 5 percent to a property’s value.

According to the Farmers Weekly approximately 166,000 people in the UK are stuck in rural broadband ‘not spots’ whilst for 2,000,000 who are situated in rural areas, BT’s existing copper based Internet access is the only option available. For many of these users, the performance levels that this basic service offers are at insufficient for their needs.

Competition is clearly needed to bring higher-quality broadband to these rural residents and businesses. But should that be based on the incentive of commercial gain? Or should the UK, like Germany, have installed super-fast broadband into rural areas before urban areas?  In it’s 2009 Broadband Strategy, the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology identified broadband Internet as a crucial factor in securing jobs in rural locations, and research found an overall positive, if limited, relationship between local employment and local broadband infrastructure.

There’s an interesting article on ISPreview, entitled Rala refuse to name new uk fibre broadband rollout due to BT fears, which suggests that commercial Internet providers are being put off even attempting to provide services to rural areas, due to the rug being pulled from under their feet by BT after they have made a significant investment in building out infrastructure in that area.

The article discusses how a Swedish fibre-optic equipment supplier Rala has been hired to design a “fibre focused network” somewhere in the north of the UK. This is said to connect almost 1,000 properties to an ultrafast broadband service. However, the suppliers refuse to say where exactly this network is being constructed. The article goes on to give an example of a small ISP that agreed to build a faster broadband service in an isolated village, only to suddenly find that BT, which had previously refused to complete any upgrades, had now decided to also provide a service to that particular community.

This is a perfect example of why BT’s rival bidders have now fallen away, leaving it to pick up the contracts for all 44 rural broadband projects on offer and around £1.2 billion of public funding; they simply don’t believe that they have a decent chance of getting a return on their investment.  Our own anecdotal evidence suggests that smaller ISPs are fed up of BT moving in on an area it had previously classed as unviable, as soon as it catches wind of a smaller provider moving in.

The BDUK rollout target is 2015, If there’s still no sign of a major improvement to broadband in rural areas, then we don’t think it’s too far-fetched a prediction to say that this will be a significant contributing factor to the continuing economic decline of areas such as the Highlands and Islands – and many other parts of rural Britain, as more people migrate to urban areas where the infrastructure gives them more freedom and flexibility.

Much greater transparency, financial commitment and competitive opportunity are needed to bring rural communities up to speed with the urbanites. Until that happens, we’ll continue to have a digital divide in the UK, rural communities will continue to lag behind cities and towns, and their prospects and populations will continue to decline.

Have your say!
Do you think that the UK is in threat of de-ruralisation? Or do you think that these latest finding are just a bid for more money from the public purse? Let us know what you think by leaving your comments below.

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