Improving connectivity in rural areas

12th May 2017

Russell Haworth

Russell Haworth

As we move towards a connected future and our lives become increasingly dependent on the internet, it’s time to tackle the rural-urban digital divide.

Many of us will have been on holiday to remote and beautiful corners of the country where the scenery is splendid but the internet connection is dire. On a week long holiday we can cope without instant access to Google maps and email, but spare a thought for the people who live in these unconnected beauty spots.

According to data from Ofcom, Super-fast broadband, defined as 30 Mbps, is now available to 89% of UK homes, but only 59% of rural dwellings in the UK can access these speeds. As more aspects of our personal and professional lives rely on being connected to the internet, such a stark rural-urban divide seems archaic, serving as an Achilles’ heel to the country’s position as a global digital leader.

We use the internet for banking, renewing important documents, planning holidays, contacting our children’s schools, booking doctor appointments and keeping in touch with the people we love, not to mention for watching TV shows, listening to music, shopping, searching for information and recipes, reserving restaurant tables…the list is almost endless. Professionally, an internet connection can be the lifeblood of a business, relied upon as a means of engaging with customers, suppliers and contractors, arranging meetings, supplying products or simply generating awareness and keeping up with the competition.

The internet’s integral role in day-to-day life will only increase as the Internet of Things become a reality and we equip our homes with smart devices and travel in driverless cars, creating a world reliant on the ability to connect. It is an exciting future that has the potential to transform lives, but it could become the preserve of the city dwellers, with smart devices inaccessible to those who live in rural areas where internet speeds can be either non-existent or too slow to meet the needs of those using it.

Realising the future is one area, but the present also needs our attention and there are more immediate concerns attached to rural connectivity issues. These small, often isolated communities require the support the internet can provide, and miss out on many social and economic benefits by not having reliable connections. Youngsters need to use the internet at school and for homework – not to mention to keep in touch with their friends – and those running businesses struggle without the immediacy of conducting their operations online.

Landlords find it hard to attract tenants if they can’t offer a good connection, while professionals hoping to work from home find it impossible without internet access to their HQ. More and more local services and councils are moving their systems online, and vulnerable sections of the community – such as older people – may get cut off from healthcare services or key support if they can’t access them via the internet.

These small communities also struggle to attract those city dwellers that dream of a country property (and can’t afford to buy anything closer to work), but expect good connectivity in their potential home. The arrival of these young professionals can be transformative for a small community – bringing up the average age and boosting the local economy – but if the area struggles with limited internet connectivity, these buyers will likely take their money elsewhere.

Nominet, as a public benefit internet company, is committed to applying our expertise to tackle issues such as rural connectivity to ensure no one misses out on the power and potential of the internet. To this end, we were thrilled to be able to offer the remote communities of Arran a solution to their internet woes with our TV white space roll-out in October 2016.

The TV white spaces are areas that stand vacant following the digital switchover and we, using a licensed database can dynamically identify and utilise them to facilitate the delivery of an internet connection.

With the help of Broadway Partners, TVWS connections are now supporting members of the Arran community, and the work has now attracted the interest of other rural communities. We are excited that, with the support of Broadway Partners, our innovative technology solution will soon be helping those living in Llanarth, Monmouthshire.

It’s a stunning part of the world; a small Welsh village in a glacial valley, surrounded by undulating land. Unfortunately, the appealing terrain is not conducive to the laying of broadband cables or internet connections that rely on line of sight. The households that currently have internet connections receive an average speed of 2.5 Mbps, labouring far behind the UK average of 22.8 Mbps and taking residents outside the realm of Netflix (but not BBC iPlayer, which is some consolation).

TVWS connections could be the answer, with a pilot project planned ahead of a wider roll-out, and we are confident that the benefits will be as far-reaching as has proven true on Arran. This adds further support to our belief that the spectrum sharing approach TVWS relies upon needs to become the norm and not the exception to meet the current and future demands on spectrum.

Sharing spectrum dynamically in this way across the board is a contentious idea for the internet service providers, who profit from the current model in which entities can purchase sections of spectrum for their exclusive use. Sharing spectrum is a more sustainable option and one that will allow this finite resource to cope with increasing demand, but it may prove less profitable (and less popular) for the big internet players.

Ultimately, we should always strive to use the best tools we can to meet the digital needs of the populace and address the digital divide within our country. We need to empower all people – regardless of the view from the kitchen window – to access the internet and thus the services, support and pleasure it provides, paving the way for the UK to become the digital leader we strive to be.