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.

I <3 Cows

Hello and a big welcome back after the holiday period. I hope everyone had a wonderful break and if you were working over Christmas and New Year, I hope it was a calm and cheerful time for you. I really enjoyed the festivities, but, most importantly, I had a chance to reflect on our work tackling digital and social exclusion and focus my mind on the crucial areas that should be at the forefront of our work. One of these areas is Rural.

Just before Christmas, I attended the Prince’s Countryside Forum with two of my colleagues and a member of the Online Centres Network, Paul Davies from Destinations@Saltburn. Together with Paul, we hosted an interactive workshop and I gave a lightning talk entitled ‘Digital: Opportunity or Frustration’. We were also able to chat to The Prince of Wales, and I was interested to hear his thoughts on rural and share mine with him.

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One of the things that really stood out for me, was a lady who spoke at the event. She’s a farmer and she knew that from an early age she wanted to work with cows. “I love cows, I always have” is how she opened her talk. But her chosen career path presents many challenges. For starters, where she’s based is so isolated, she finds it hard to meet and interact with other people. She can’t even begin to think about digital inclusion when there are other such pressing issues, like isolation.

This made me realise just how big a social challenge rural is. It made me ask myself, what are the biggest challenges in rural areas and how can we help tackle them?

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When we talk about digital and social exclusion, we often focus on the urban environment where poorer people live. But people in rural areas also have big hurdles to jump, such as isolation – being so far from places where they can go to develop their skills – as well as availability of broadband.

Solutions

There are things being done. For example, the National Farmers Union are lobbying for fast, affordable and reliable broadband and mobile coverage for farmers, growers and their rural communities. Broadband helps rural businesses to thrive. It helps them to be more efficient; attract more customers. The centres participating in our Prince’s Countryside Fund project are helping rural businesses to do more with digital, and in year two – which we’ve just started delivering this month – there’s also focus on individuals, Digital Champions and community organisations.

Some of our centres based in rural areas are a member of our Online Centres Specialist Rural Network. Nyree Scott is a centre manager who works in rural areas running and working in many centres. She does outreach work, as do many centres in the network, bringing internet, devices and the power of online to individuals who would otherwise be left behind. In outreach work, online learning platforms, like Learn My Way, are ever so important, because it means that everyone can be supported wherever and whenever they need it.

The areas of teleworking and telehealth are opening up massive opportunities for people in rural areas that just weren’t there before. The ideas of being able to work from home or a specific location, and being able to provide healthcare remotely, through the means of digital technology, are going a long way in improving their quality of life. But that’s been talked about for the thirty years I’ve been listening!

Worlds apart but closer than we think

Often when we think about rural locations we think about places here in the UK. We definitely don’t think about places like California, especially with it being the home of Silicon Valley. But towards the end of last year I read a blog post about a project taking place there called: Bridging California’s Rural/Urban Digital Divide with Mobile Broadband.

More and more farmers in rural California and relying on tech to make their business more efficient and environmentally friendly through precision agriculture. But many rural communities there suffer the same lack of reliable, fast mobile broadband that we do here, and this means that many rural economies there are falling behind.

The project aims to tackle this issue by collecting data on mobile broadband performance in a specific area – Yolo County – and comparing that performance to what mobile providers claim they deliver, and what farmers actually need for precision agriculture. This information will be collated into a report and presented to state officials to inform public policymaking on rural broadband.

A really interesting project, and something I wonder if we could replicate here.

What does rural mean to you?

The Oxford Dictionary defines Rural as: “In, relating to, or characteristic of the countryside rather than the town.” I am quite sure that many of you would associate rural with ‘old-school’ farming and isolation, and define it as unconnected, perhaps even distant. With better connectivity and better transport links, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The online world can revolutionise the farming industry, revolutionise rural businesses and revolutionise rural life as a whole. With a little collaboration from those willing to help, I am sure we can make this revolution happen.

If we could do that, my friend from the Prince’s Countryside Forum wouldn’t have to travel to London to share her love of cows – she could get online and share it with the world. But I’m sure, as with all things digital, she would still like to come and meet Prince Charles in person, and balance her online and offline worlds to suit her.