22 Mar

DR Director David Incoll on Rural Broadband

 

David Incoll

 

DR Director David Incoll explains the ins and outs of the reality for Devon’s businesses accessing broadband at superfast speeds, in his article posted in the Western Morning News today. See below for the text of the article:

 

 

Rural Devon versus urban Devon: broadband speed and its effect on business competitiveness

For businesses, access to sufficiently fast broadband speeds is a vital aspect of their everyday functioning. Urban areas invariably have access to fast or superfast broadband speeds but for many in rural areas of the UK, broadband is very slow or simply not available. “17% of premises in the UK’s rural areas cannot receive decent broadband services, compared to just 2% in urban areas” reported the OfCom annual Connected Nations Report in December 2017. Devon is particularly affected by this because, as the Devon County Strategy for Growth 2013-2020 recognises, Devon is “overwhelmingly rural.”

There are many businesses in these rural areas of Devon working in industries and markets that increasingly demand every aspect of the business to be conducted online. From tax returns to customer communication, product marketing to online-only funding applications, rural businesses who don’t have sufficient broadband speed to perform vital online business activities are at a significant disadvantage to their urban competitors.

Those working in rural industries often operate from remote or topographically challenging locations. The tourism sector in particular is highly competitive and electronic access to customers and online booking facilities are essential for the businesses to succeed. These industries make up a large percentage of Devon’s economy and so significant is the broadband issue that businesses in areas with poor or no broadband access often cannot make the investment decisions that they wish to.

It is important to remember that broadband speed is not just a concern for businesses in the isolated areas of Devon’s Moors and coasts. In my home village of Aylesbeare just by Exeter Airport the broadband speed stands at 0.7Mbit/s in contrast to parts of Exeter which have superfast broadband starting at around 17Mbit/s. The DR Company, for whom I am a Director, has their office on the Okehampton Business Centre. While they have faster broadband than many, it’s speed is not adequate for the many businesses who work from it and for the type of work they do. The DR Company are specialists in helping rural businesses find and access funding. They apply for funding for their clients and they manage large funding programmes, all of which is done on the internet and requires fast upload and download speeds.

So what is being done to help? In December 2017, the Government agreed a Universal Service Obligation (USO) which will mean every premises in the UK will have the right to request a ‘decent’ broadband speed by 2020. While this sounds like a solution to everyone’s problems, is it really? The Government’s ‘decent’ broadband speed is defined as a service that is “capable of delivering a download speed of at least 10Mbits/s and an upload speed of at least 1Mbit/s.” This has been designed to help OfCom’s estimated 4% of premises (around 1.1 million) in the UK who are currently not able to access even this level of broadband service and “reflects the growing importance to people and businesses of services….which need good upload, as well as download, speeds.” For many, like the DR Company, the ‘decent’ speed, is simply not fast enough.

Up until November 2016 a Government funded voucher scheme for Devon was available to help those premises who are so remote that they would not even be able to receive ‘decent’ broadband access. A successor to this scheme was announced on 15th March this year. The Nationwide Gigabit Broadband Voucher Scheme (GBVS) will provide vouchers worth up to £3000 for a small or medium sized business or £500 to residents to help with the costs of connecting to full fibre broadband. However, rural residents can only benefit from the voucher scheme as part of a local community group scheme, which must also include small businesses. The HM treasury report states “ Businesses and residents can get vouchers from suppliers who are registered with the scheme. Vouchers may only be used to support the cost of eligible connections.” It is also worth bearing in mind that this is only available in participating areas and in some cases the cost of installation may be greater than the value of the vouchers available.

Are there alternatives? In a ground breaking move the Church of England last month announced it would allow church spires across the UK to be used as a digital connectivity boost in rural areas. Also there are companies, such as Bush Broadband, who can provide internet connections of 15-30Mbit/s by using small radios which can transmit broadband signals over several kilometres enabling remote premises to have access to broadband using a radio network. Remember though, these suppliers will need to be signed up to the new voucher scheme, or something similar, for connection to be subsidised.

In short, it seems that finding access to superfast broadband in rural areas is not a simple procedure. In this rural county, Devon’s businesses who cannot access sufficiently fast broadband to enable them to work competitively in their chosen industries are facing navigating their way through a complex system to be able to achieve parity with their urban competitors. To secure the competitiveness of the county’s rural economy it is vital that all businesses and residents are able to access superfast broadband, not just ‘decent’ broadband and at a price that is affordable. While changes are happening ,it is unclear when and if a “fit for purpose” access to superfast broadband will be achieved across Devon.

By David Incoll
Director of the DR Company
Chair Citizens Advice Devon

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