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Super-fast broadband: A growing digital divide
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The broadband revolution is having huge social and economic impacts on the UK, as consumers, professionals and businesses gain access to a range of advanced IT services. With high-grade connectivity becoming a more common reality, techniques such as virtualisation and cloud computing are changing the way IT is consumed. And web-enabled mobile devices are altering the way individuals engage with information, causing significant shifts in social behaviours and employment trends.
That is, for those people who are able to enjoy the benefits of super-fast broadband. Despite the vast amounts of money being channelled into the sector, households and businesses in rural areas are finding themselves on the wrong side of a growing digital divide. With private sector network operators lacking the commercial incentive to extend their reach into the countryside, many rural communities are at risk of being left behind. The government is aware of the dangers, and is taking some steps to remedy the situation, but is it doing enough to ensure communities are not left isolated in the digital age?
Some £530 million has been set aside for the rollout of high-speed broadband in rural areas, and this public money is in the process of being distributed among local authorities. A further £300 million could also become available from the BBC licence fee after 2015, to help connect remote villages and hamlets to the national broadband network. However, critics say this level of funding is nowhere near sufficient. Even the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has admitted that more government cash may be needed to deliver truly universal high-speed broadband in the UK.
Clearly for businesses based outside the major towns and cities, the slow progress made on raising broadband speeds is something of a concern. With more public services now exclusively available online, and with companies required to file tax forms and other documentation over the internet, remaining offline is no longer an option. Even if a company has no interest in trapping into ecommerce markets or advertising over the web, some form of internet presence is needed simply to remain compliant. But while the government is driving internet adoption top-down, many firms believe it is failing to ensure the required infrastructure is put in place.
A vociferous critic of the government's broadband strategy has been the Federation of Small Businesses, which has continued to campaign for improved coverage for rural companies and residents. In a recent study, the organisation found that two-thirds of rural companies feel held back by inadequate download capabilities and a third are worried about service reliability. John Walker, national chairman of the FSB, said too many companies are still unable to access basic broadband to run their business effectively. "It shouldn't matter where a business is located. With the technology we have today all firms should be able to trade overseas, throughout the UK, and from town to village," he added. "With both rural and urban businesses clearly looking to the internet to expand, it is imperative the government takes action to close the digital divide between urban and rural businesses."
What has made the issue all the more sensitive for countryside businesses is the fact that download speeds in the major urban areas are continuing to increase. Network investment from the likes of BT and Virgin Media has seen user capabilities soar in recent years, but only for those based in urban centres. BT recently announced plans to launch 300Mbps broadband services on a limited basis, but in the countryside, many companies are struggling to file their accounts or conduct data transfers with speeds slower than 2Mbps.
And when you consider that the government is investing £150 million of public money in the creation of ultra-fast urban broadband hubs in 20 large cities, the issue becomes even more problematic. Clearly, in a difficult economic climate, the government needs to drive economic growth however it best sees fit. But at the same time, using public funds to upgrade networks in areas already well-served by the private sector looks set to only exacerbate the digital divide. Speeds are increasing much faster in the cities than in the countryside, simply on the basis that broadband providers stand to make more money. But if broadband is being treated as a public service, and an essential for UK companies, the government cannot afford to allow remote communities to fall any further behind.
Posted by Jon Aspinell
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