BDUK has released figures to the end of December 2014 purporting to show how well their so-called "rural" broadband programme is going. The trouble is, the figures are fairly meaningless because they only show how many premises could potentially connect to Superfast (24 Mb+) broadband.
What the report doesn't don't show is how many homes and business have actually connected. And the UK government's voucher scheme, despite being extended, doesn't yet reach many parts of the countryside desperate to get fit-for-purpose broadband connectivity.
These figures are not welcomed in Rural South Huddersfield where many businesses and residents have struggled for years to get broadband speeds above 1 Mb. Despite all the political rhetoric, posturing and behind-the-scene machinations locals feel badly let down with the UK's broadband strategists in government and industry.
In fact, we're all fed up and looking at ways to sort out the broadband problem ourselves rather than relying on the so-far empty promises of others.
Released just yesterday, our DigiChampz Yorkshire Digital User Survey suggests that we are simply dancing around the opportunities and benefits of rural digital economies. Fit-for-purpose broadband is lacking, Internet security is low on the list of user priorities, and folks have just been left to fend for themselves, the report reveals.
What's driving the British economy? It's the 5.2 million SMEs which make up 99.3 percent of all businesses in the UK. The love affair with hi tech gadgets, massive broadband speeds and sophisticated business platforms doesn't negate the fact that these must be applied to real working business environments. And by entrepreneurs, business owners and top managers who are taking calculated risks and seizing opportunities. These are the real innovators who just know how to do business well.
So, the real challenge for the digital economy is how we can transform those traditional non digital SMEs into super efficient online commercial hubs trading cross border around the world.
Rural Broadband Connectivity Is An Election Priority
Here are my top 9 reasons why more government investment in fit-for-purpose rural broadband connectivity must become an election priority. They are based upon my observations and discussions with local people, businesses and community groups in Rural Kirklees as part of our EU Commision backed DigiChampz Initiative.
1. Two-tier economy: Rural broadband rollout is neither uniform nor fast enough to meet the UK's place in the competitive global digital economy. We're creating a two-tier economy between those mostly in towns and cities that enjoy all the benefits and opportunities of having good access to the Internet, and those in the countryside that do not.
2. Supply chain and e-commerce: We need to explore better, more innovative ways of empowering traditional non digital businesses in rural areas, get them online and trading electronically using trusted, supported, community based e-commerce hubs. Rural businesses are diverse. They encourage local supply chains offering farm fresh, fair trade, bespoke and handmade goods which are saleable across global e-commerce markets. Rural community ecosystems have a role to play in validating local suppliers which, in turn, promotes online trust and confidence.
3. Farmers facing financial ruin: New mandatory rules come into force in May 2015 which will require farmers to complete DEFRA grant applications online. Lack in both connectivity and e skills could have a devastating effect upon their businesses, rural employment, farming-related businesses (e.g. agricultural suppliers) and traditional ways of life. The Global Director of Business Transformation in one major high street bank has told me he fears for his farming customers.
4. Online legal and regulatory obligations: SOHO (small office / home office businesses) in rural areas rely on fit-for-purpose connectivity to meet their business, legal and statutory obligations. For example, HMRC now requires all VAT registered businesses to complete returns online. Companies House charge a high fee for Annual Returns completed by hand.
5. Increased mobile working: More workers in paid employment work from home at least one day per week. Without good broadband they cannot easily access their office business systems. They are also likely to spend unproductive hours downloading files which they would be able to do in minutes with good connectivity.
6. Competition: Some broadband providers appear to play a political game with central and local government to protect their own interests. Flexing this market muscle works to the detriment of broadband deployment in some rural economies and prevents take-up of the digital economy. This has got to stop and local competition opened up to more innovators and new market entrants.
7. Requirement for real time communications: Broadband speed is NOT the real standard for measuring connectivity. Robust universal connectivity, capable of delivering communications in real time anywhere and when required, is. The case study is a live auction held on the ground but with real time bidding also taking place online. Rural auctions are the pulse of many farming and rural communities.
8. Rural isolation and loneliness: Libraries and post offices up and down the country are closing down. Communities need to find new ways of supporting local people and encouraging social inclusion. Creating new digital hubs, for example in libraries can help. Libraries are also natural knowledge hubs which, reinvented, can support and empower local communities, improve local e-skills and promote well being through the digital economy.
9. Digital exclusion premium: If you don't pay some household bills online (e.g. electricity, gas and water) you will be charged to receive your bill through the post. This could add as much as £1.90 onto what you owe. According to the government, the average family can save up to £600 per year by making their purchases online. Poor broadband increases the likelihood that you'll get charged digital exclusion premiums because you have to resort to paying for things by one of the more traditional non-electronic methods.
DigiChampz Yorkshire Conference 2015
All these concerns around rural broadband will be discussed at the DigiChampz Yorkshire Conference 2015 at Huddersfield University on February 25th. You can register and attend for free.