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By David Hennell from 4G National Broadband

The internet is one of the most valuable resources we all have access to. In fact, it’s so important that for years there has been an ongoing campaign to have it recognised as a core human right.
From shopping to socialising, the internet is at the heart of how we live. And that’s not just the case with our personal lives – it ever increasingly applies to the way we work too.

The renaissance of rural business

It’s all too easy to think of remote working as something that only impacts corporate staff – those people who sit in Zoom meetings all day or spend their days writing documents and uploading them to Google Docs. But the truth is far more complicated. A staggering 800,000 new businesses were incorporated in the UK in 2020 – with 75% of these being founded in someone’s home. And only a fraction of these fit this stereotypical view of remote working.

The internet is crucial for businesses of all kinds and all sizes – from farming and manufacturing through to arts and design. It’s what connects businesses to their suppliers and customers, allowing them to monitor in real-time what is happening with their products and on their websites. And from a blinkered ivory tower perspective, it’s all too easy to assume that every business and home in the UK that wants access to fast, reliable internet can get it easily and immediately from a traditional fibre broadband provider.

But that simply isn’t the case. According to Ofcom, 600,000 properties scattered all around the UK lack access to fit for purpose broadband, meaning that for them, this transition and access to the most necessary online services for businesses to thrive has been next to impossible.

The digital divide that results from this disparity in internet access, where many are left forced to use outdated and slow ADSL connections, barely even having access to what we consider basic functions, is one of the biggest handicaps for independent businesses and workers. If there’s no fast and stable internet connection available, how can businesses be expected to succeed with no workable access to online necessities such as video conferencing and e-commerce management?

Rural businesses and the ‘Digital Divide’

While this might sound like an isolated problem, it’s actually a concrete example of the digital divide in the UK. A slow connection means slower growth and makes it harder for businesses in rural areas to realise their potential. That’s profoundly unfair – no one should have their business aspirations hamstrung just because they don’t happen to live in a city or urban location.

This applies to rural businesses of all shapes and sizes – even the most traditional of firms are ever more reliant on the internet. A report from Rural England found that the vast majority of rural businesses view their smartphones as their most important device (82%), closely followed by a laptop (79%) – needless to say, both of which depend on reliable connectivity.

This isn’t connectivity for the sake of it – the same research revealed that a quarter of rural businesses had found that better connectivity allowed them to be more flexible in the way they worked.

And it’s not just deskbound workers who benefit. Technological developments such as the Internet of Things are already transforming farmers’ lives for the better by providing easier, safer ways to automate key farming activities like watering crops, monitoring processes and feeding animals – increasing efficiency and giving workers precious hours back in their day. But this again utterly depends on the availability of a reliable connection – farms that lack this risk becoming through no fault of their own the “have-nots” who look enviously over the fence at neighbours that are able to reap the benefits of a fast connection.

Untapped Economic Potential.

Taken together, there’s a clear and compelling argument for making rural connectivity a priority for businesses and politicians alike. There is far too much of an urban-centric focus on further improving the broadband of those who already have a perfectly good connection, rather than addressing connectivity for rural Britain, the area by far the most in need.

With an increasing shift towards remote and hybrid working, good connectivity ensures that people can live where they want to live – without having to compromise in any way on their ability to do their jobs.

It also brings real, significant improvements for rural businesses – from farmers who can take advantage of the potential of the Internet of Things through to cottage businesses who can reliably advertise their products, communicate with suppliers and engage with customers.

Perhaps most significantly of all, providing universal broadband that is fit for purpose will do a huge amount to reinvigorate and enable rural businesses and in so doing, reverse rural decay – the growing tendency for younger residents to migrate away from rural locations in search of more widespread employment opportunities in cities.

And crucially this ambition can be realised today. While most discussion is fixated upon the cost, difficulty and timescales involved in expanding fibre-based broadband into more remote areas, the truth is it’s by no means the only option. There are compelling broadband delivery technologies which can be installed anywhere almost immediately – whether that’s via a satellite signal or by leveraging the UK’s 4G network. The latter can happily be used to provide remote properties with a connection far faster and far more reliable than their existing ADSL lines – and in most cases doesn’t require anything more than a new router.

Ensuring rural areas have access to a fast, reliable connection is the best way to help reduce the UK’s digital divide and reinvigorate the rural economy. The continued failure to do so leaves these areas digitally deprived and wastes their largely untapped economic potential – and that’s not to mention the substantial disadvantages suffered by rural homes and families.

The question must be asked: when there are cost-effective alternatives ready to go right now, why should anyone be left waiting for the connection they deserve?

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