Digital divide marginalises rural communities, says new report

A new report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, led by Tiverton and Honiton MP Neil Parish, has highlighted the continuing digital divide between urban and rural areas.

The connectivity differences, even between rural towns and sparser communities, are the cause of ‘frustration’, it states.

Doubts have been expressed about ambitious Government targets set for the roll out of full-fibre broadband.

“Despite improvements in coverage since our predecessor’s report, our inquiry has shown that poor broadband and mobile data services continue to marginalise rural communities, particularly those living in hard to reach areas,” said Mr Parish.

“Digital connectivity is now regarded by many as an essential utility, with many in rural areas struggling to live a modern lifestyle without it. There continues to be a lot of frustration felt by those living or working in rural areas– and rightly so.”

Mr Parish said the committee supports the Government’s pledge to broadband USO and an ‘outside-in’ approach to full fibre roll out.

He suggests rural areas should be prioritised in the future.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to achieve universal full-fibre broadband by 2025 – something Mr Parish has welcomed.

However, he adds: “The committee is not confident that the Government has fully grasped the scale of the challenge currently faced and is sceptical as to whether the Government will meet these ambitious new targets without considerable and potentially controversial reforms.

“In addition, on the eve of 5G mobile data services, people in rural areas will increasingly feel like second class citizens if they can’t access 4G or even 3G services. Rural roaming must be seen as a solution, if no voluntary proposal is agreed between mobile network operators and Government.

“The problem of poor connectivity in rural areas has gone on for far too long. With so many of our public services now delivered primarily online, it is imperative that this problem is resolved and that rural communities are granted the same digital access as the majority of their urban counterparts.”

Digital divide and demand

The report says, despite significant improvement in both rural broadband and mobile coverage in recent years, it has ‘only barely kept up with increasing demand’.

It adds; “Poor connectivity continues to hinder rural businesses and is preventing people from engaging with online public services the rest of the country take for granted.

“The Government has recognised that connectivity must be treated as a utility with its introduction of the broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) and has outlined a commitment to ensure the divide between urban and rural areas is not exacerbated through various funding initiatives.

“However, given the continued challenges posed to rural businesses and communities, the Committee is not confident that the Government has fully grasped the extent of the problem, the scale of the challenge, or the wider cost of poor connectivity for the rural economy.”

The report’s findings and recommendations can be read in full here.

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