The issue of adequate internet bandwidth and presence of mobile ‘blackspots’ for rural areas and other areas not considered commercially exploitable, has been around since the first days of these technologies. It is still a hot issue. For example, the district of Suffolk Coastal where I live is 269 out of 325 for fastest web connection speeds of all English councils and 108 out of 157 rural councils. More than 13% of premises across the district receive less than two Mbps. DEFRA has recognised this as a problem issue for farmers.
The roll-out of rural high speed access has been aided by numerous self-help groups, government initiatives, and pressure campaigns. In June 2013, the government announced set aside a further £250m on top of the £530m already allocated to stimulate commercial investment in rural broadband, so that 95 per cent of UK premises will have access to superfast broadband by 2017. There are companies which specialise in fast broadband for rural locations using wireless technology, which can give coverage to sparse areas and where there are few landline possibilities. One such company is hoping to enlist the help of churches as towers for the radio broadband, with the parishes of Dedham and Little Horkesley as a committed target.
In addition to bandwidth availability where only 35 per cent of ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads have 3G coverage by all the major networks, mobile has blackspot and dropout issues where the lower density rural population has not warranted investment. Local newspaper campaigns have been active in gathering support and publicising the issues.
Whilst the provision of fast and reliable connectivity equivalent to that obtainable in urban areas is very convenient, there are other longer term issues related to such infrastructure. One of the problems with villages is the provision of employment of an advanced nature and particularly provision of the kind of work attractive to younger people. Without jobs suited to youth skills and adequate remuneration, villages tend to become commuter ‘dormitories’ with no alternative for younger people but to leave.
Ever since the days of dial-up modem internet connections, it has been possible for individuals to work from home and to achieve some degree of beneficial ‘telecommuting’. More recently the technology has become sophisticated enough to co-ordinate international business activities across different time zones from home, using modern tools such as teleconferencing, linked applications, and shared presentations. The day starts early with progress tele-meetings with the offshore teams in India, then at midday with the UK teams, finally relaying results and decisions to the west coast USA teams in the late afternoon. Such working from the village home with greater free time and no commuting, also means that local shops and trades are used much more than otherwise.
The ongoing development of the web has made it possible for purely local businesses to reach out beyond the confines of village life to a much wider base of new customers. This has helped establish new small businesses and helped to keep existing businesses viable.
However, rurally located businesses which have to offer wide bandwidth connections to their clients, are being hampered by the low bandwidths on offer and the relatively higher costs for good connections compared to urban located systems. Even where the village businesses use cloud computing to provide their customer services, growth in terms of the number of local employees may still be inhibited, as each new employee adds to the overall demand on the local network.
Further, if you were intending to invest in a local area or deal with a rural supplier, it will not go down well if the first time you visit the area or try to contact someone if the mobile connection drops out, or worse, offers no service.
The major players in broadband, particularly BT, have considerable resources and extensive technical expertise to do the job, but also have a commercial responsibility to invest for a real return. There is a similar case for mobile coverage. This has to be balanced against the social and structural imperatives of the mainly rural areas, currently without higher speed access or poor mobile coverage. There is a governmental responsibility which rightly includes some financial support, but this must be properly directed for best effect, and must not be used to substitute for already planned commercial investment. There is also a lot of EU red tape to negotiate. This is where the political angle for UKIP comes into play.
UKIP should take this as an opportunity to create an appealing vision of how the development of new mobile and broadband technologies can help to remodel village life away from the currently restricted set of opportunities for rural employment. Freed from the need to move away to gain rewarding jobs, unencumbered by dictatorial commuting timetables, and able to conduct business via the web at a suitably intense level, rural societies can regain social vitality and attain a higher degree of local autonomy. This vision would demonstrate both UKIP’s commitment to localism, and position UKIP firmly alongside future critical technologies.
So, whether your fast connection to the world is in future provided by high speed fibres, or the tower at BT’s Adastral Park, or the more historic tower at Dedham Church, the UKIP model for rural living will have a high level of telepresence and all of its attendant social advantages.
Steven Whalley joined UKIP this year following long concerns over policy on energy, and the gap between parliament and the people. He tweets at @steven_wh