Why rural areas are still fulfilling the digital cliche

Last week I attended a roundtable on rural connectivity, hosted by Lord Gardiner, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs and Biosecurity. DCMS were there as well in their broadband capacity as opposed to digital skills. When I was invited to attend this roundtable, I was very keen to go, as a lot of our Online Centres are based in rural areas (our Princes Countryside Fund funded centres to name a few) and it’s important to me to be the voice of those centres at events like this.

Digital exclusion in rural areas – the headlines

Most people will associate rural areas with poor connectivity, low digital skills and isolation. Digital exclusion is the same in rural areas as in urban; nationally, c. 10% of the population lack the skills, confidence and motivation to use the internet, however, people in rural areas face additional barriers, such as accessibility. In this case though, the phrase ‘build it and they will come’ isn’t entirely relevant because even when the right solutions are found for rural broadband there are still people who are digitally excluded in rural areas. We need to reach these people.

The cost of connectivity can be higher in rural areas as it often needs to be supplied by alternative methods, such as satellite. Our rural partners have told us about newer organisations like Gigaclear who have different business models, however, specialising in ‘connecting rural communities by installing pure fibre straight into the home – reliable, future-proof and simple to install’.

In relation to the ongoing dilemma that is Universal Credit, connectivity and digital equipment issues are increased in a rural setting for UC claimants. Some of our Princes Countryside Fund Hubs have told us about individuals they have supported who are required to job search daily and complete online claims whilst trying to combat poor connectivity or having to travel large distances in order to do this using equipment and/or connections in community locations such as Online Centres or libraries. As Universal Credit becomes a bigger and bigger issue, it’s important to make sure jobseekers in rural areas aren’t further disadvantaged.

And finally, a stat to round off the headlines, under the Universal Service Obligation, basic fixed line services are required to be available at an affordable price to all citizens and customers across the UK, but shockingly, 4% of the country doesn’t currently have a solution for achieving the Universal Service Obligation.

What are my recommendations?

Thinking about all of these problems, here are my big recommendations, which I talked about at the roundtable. They are:

  1. Don’t talk about technology and all of the techy solutions but talk about local people and about the benefits that technology will bring:
  • for people, including people on Universal Credit
  • for small businesses and SMEs
  1. Find and empower local community champions
  2. Utilise our model of national systems/models but also allow local solutions and local ownership to flourish
  3. Embrace the concept of ‘doing digital in a place’ eg a digital village where everyone is supported to use the internet. Also, aggregated demand can be a solution to getting commercial or community providers to put the broadband in place
  4. Establish Community Hubs (note not a focus on digital but on community) to help with the holistic needs of that rural community including (and importantly) digital eg. schools, village halls, pubs, et al.

What we need to do is empower ALL communities to take advantage of digital. It’s going to take a lot of hard work but we WILL get there.