Rural communities have long found themselves at a disadvantage because of their isolation from urban centres and the jobs and services they provide. But with increasing reliance on the internet for everything from online shopping to attending virtual doctor’s appointments and home working, digital connectivity is becoming an increasing concern.
Whilst broadband coverage has improved over the years, according to government statistics published in 2021, 8% of rural premises still do not have access to superfast broadband, compared to 3% in urban areas. On top of this households can experience digital exclusion as they lack digital devices or the skills to be able to use them.
The ACRE Network has a long-standing interest in using technology for connecting rural communities, from pioneering ‘telecottages’ in the 1980s to supporting digital skills and learning in the 1990s and 2000s.
Today, many ACRE Network members help rural communities broker new broadband connections with commercial suppliers, some operate schemes offering new or recycled devices to those who experience digital exclusion, and in Norfolk our member CAN has even developed a county-wide wireless internet service called thinkingwisp.
There is still a long way to go until all rural communities enjoy access to affordable world-class broadband and have the devices and skills to be able to make the most of this. Closing this gap is of paramount importance if services continue to be delivered online by default, as well as the roll out of other technological innovations such as autonomous vehicles.
To address this, we are calling on government to:
Deliver on its pre-election commitment to provide full-fibre broadband, or its equivalent, to every rural premises and at no greater cost than the market offers in urban areas
Deliver on the promise of the Shared Rural Network to ensure that all rural areas are connected to 4G and, as the technology develops, have a pathway to access the benefits of 5G to the same extent as urban areas