Bridging the digital divide:a mission of national importance

Bridging the digital divide: a mission of national importance

22 February 2021 | Steve Holford

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Steve Holford

Blog Author | chief commercial officer, Airband

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If there’s one thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s how fundamental technology is to modern day life.

For those lucky enough to have reliable home broadband infrastructure, the transition to remote working and socialising will have been relatively seamless from a technology standpoint. For those living in rural and hard-to-reach communities however, the move may not have been so smooth.

We are beginning to see real progress in the rollout of FTTP high-speed broadband across the country, and it cannot come soon enough. Our sudden and increased reliance on home broadband has brought into sharp attention the severity of the UK’s digital divide, with many of those in rural areas being adversely affected.

The impact on rural communities

In an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19, the UK government has imposed a host of measures, including national lockdowns, the closure of non-essential business and the instruction for people to work from home where possible. While we have all been affected in some way by these restrictions, the impact has been felt particularly acutely by those in rural areas who were already experiencing issues with broadband and connectivity services. 

With the majority of the British workforce now working remotely, home broadband services are under more pressure than ever before. A concoction of seemingly endless Zoom meetings, children relying on the internet for home schooling and multiple users in one household all using the same network, has meant that the demand for reliable, high-quality, high-speed connectivity has exploded. Unfortunately, for many people living in rural and hard-to-reach areas, this has proved an issue.

People living in rural communities with sub-par broadband services are faced with challenges and frustrations every day. While the average download rate has risen from 54.2Mbps last year to 64Mbps, many households in rural areas are still getting speeds as little as 0.12Mbps. This simply is not good enough. For too long, rural areas have been dealt a poor hand when it comes to digital connectivity and this needs to change.

Bridging the UK’s digital divide

It is, however, no coincidence that rural areas face more barriers than urban locations when it comes to broadband access. Historically, network providers have tended to focus on developing broadband infrastructure in densely populated areas where there are the most potential customers. As a result, a digital divide has developed, separating highly connected urban areas with their poorly connected rural counterparts. Indeed, as it stands today, the fastest street’s broadband is more than 5,000 times quicker than the slowest.

While there has always been a clear digital divide between urban and rural areas, the pandemic has highlighted just how deep this runs. In rural areas, a fifth of households cannot get superfast broadband, which, with a minimum download speed of 30 Mbps, is a fraction of superfast speed that is supposedly available to 95% of the country. Not just this but when investigating the costs associated with implementing fibre broadband, rural communities have been met with extreme costs of up to £152,821 for installation alone. Now more than ever, it is paramount that high-quality, affordable broadband is made accessible across the UK.

The deployment of future proof technology

With internet access so essential to our day-to-day lives, laying the right groundwork and getting the right infrastructure into rural, hard to reach communities is incredibly important. It is also, however, costly and time consuming. Rural communities cannot be expected to navigate this alone, and support from local governments and independent providers is needed.

The UK government recognises this, and has pledged its support in the form of £1.2 billion, which will be used to subsidise the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband to hardest-to-reach areas across the UK. In recent months, for example, the government has funded two large scale contracts to roll-out ultra-fast, FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) broadband to homes and businesses across rural and hard to reach areas in Cheshire, Somerset and Devon.

Introducing future-proof technology like FTTP broadband, which delivers download speeds of up to 1Gbps, will provide unparalleled opportunities for growth and increased productivity. A fast and reliable internet connection can prove a lifeline when it comes to accessing services and amenities. Faster speeds also means that rural businesses will have access to technologies like cloud based services and online data storage. On top of this, businesses would not need to suffer the frustrations of buffering. Levelling up the divide is a national priority and it is crucial to keep rural communities aligned with today’s fast-evolving digital world.

Looking to the future
From being separated from loved ones to being confined in our homes, the pandemic has been a difficult time for us all. It has also brought to the forefront the extent of the UK’s digital divide. As we look ahead, it’s clear to see that local governments and broadband providers must continue to work together to drive progress, bridge the digital divide and provide high-quality, affordable FTTP broadband to all. It is a national priority, and one that we are committed to solving.