Rural Access to Broadband: the Case in Britain Shines Light on a Pattern

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In Britain, a growing gap between urban and rural Internet speeds is damaging business, adding to farming costs, driving young people away from areas in which they have grown-up, and deterring retirees from moving to some areas of the country. These are some of the conclusions of our in-depth academic study of Internet access that Bill Dutton, Director of the Quello Center, conducted with the dot.rural RCUK Digital Economy Research Hub at the University of Aberdeen, and the Oxford Internet Institute, at the University of Oxford.

The report has been published, entitled ‘Two-Speed Britain: Rural Internet Use’. It is based on the most detailed survey so far of rural Internet users. By looking separately at ‘deep rural’ (remote), ‘shallow rural’ (less remote) and urban Internet users, the project was able to reveal the true nature of a rural divide. The report is available online at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2645771

Specifically, Bill and his colleagues found that while in urban areas just six per cent of those sampled had an average broadband speed below 6.3 Mbits/sec, in deep rural areas 45% of people were unable to achieve this modest speed. The lead research for dot.rural, Professor John Farrington, of the University of Aberdeen and lead author of the report, said that these findings indicated the scale of the problem for deep rural areas in particular, and that the digital gap is currently widening, rather than closing.

“The broadband speed gap between urban and especially deep rural areas is widening: it will begin to narrow as superfast reaches more rural areas but better-connected, mostly urban, areas will also increase speeds at a high rate. This means faster areas will probably continue to get faster, faster with slow speed areas left lagging behind.

“There is a growing social and economic gap between those who are connected and those who are not, the ‘digitally excluded’,” he said.

“It is generally seen in differences between deep (remote) rural Internet use on the one hand, and shallow (less remote) rural and urban Internet use on the other hand.

It is most pronounced in upland areas in Scotland, Wales and England, but also in many areas in lowland rural Britain. It affects 1.3 million people in deep rural Britain, and many more in less remote areas with poor Internet connection: 9.2 million people live in shallow rural areas.

“Rural businesses are penalised because they are unable to take advantage of the commercial efficiencies afforded by the Internet, as in the creative industries, or have to resort to the use of paper systems which are more costly, as in the farming sector where there is a push to move administration such as sheep registrations online.

“All these issues can potentially create a new tipping point for digitally poorly connected rural areas, including: losing businesses; adding to farming’s costs; making out-migration more likely for young people; and in-migration less likely for retirees or the economically active.

Professor Farrington added that the issue needed to be addressed if the UK Government agenda of ‘Digital by default’, with government services being delivered online, is to be achieved.

“There is a drive to make public services ranging from registering to vote to applying for a visa or making a tax return digital by default, and simpler, clearer and faster to use.

“Based on the findings of our report, this can’t be achieved until better connection is universal. The ‘universal’ broadband target of 2 Mbits/sec will be inadequate to fulfil this aim.

”An element of policy should be to improve the interface between public, private and community efforts in improving deep rural broadband speeds”

As one of the authors, and one of the principle researchers in the conduct of the Oxford Internet Surveys (OxIS), I noted that:

“This deep rural divide is not new, but it has been invisible in the statistics until now. With a specially designed sample in 2013, we have been able to uncover this divide and see it in the data. A major investment in OxIS has paid off.”

In my opinion, this helps address the failure of many other studies to find the rural divide in the data gathered by survey researchers. First, we required a disproportionate stratified sample in order to obtain a sufficient number of deep rural residents. It took us years to find the support for this boosted sample, and it would not have been possible without the collaboration with the Aberdeen dot.rural project. Secondly, the urban-rural divide was masked by the fact that shallow rural residents often have better connectivity than many urban users. Since we had a large enough rural sample, we were able to disaggregate shallow and deep rural residents and see the divide in the data.

This pattern could be the case in many other nations, so I hope researchers in the US and worldwide take notice of these findings in Britain, including England, Wales and Scotland. Moreover, the report provides an array of qualitative examples to help see the role of rural divides not just in the statistics but also in the lives of rural residents.

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This most detailed survey so far of Rural Internet Users refines many popular notions of the urban-rural digital divide and allows more detailed evidence of the impact of this divide. By looking separately at ‘deep rural’ (remote), ‘shallow rural’ (less remote) and urban Internet users, we are able to highlight the true nature of this divide.

The online behaviour of those living and working in deep and shallow rural areas reflects constraints on Internet connectivity – the effects of which include an overall limitation on what people are able to do online compared with what they want to do. Those residing in deep rural areas are most likely to be unserved or underserved (with speeds of less than 2.2Mbit/s) by broadband connectivity and are less likely than others in Britain to be able to engage online.

Ofcom’s mobile telecommunications data, reported at local authority level, shows that mobile Internet (3G and 4G) access in many rural areas remains limited, or non-existent and is not a feasible alternative means of connectivity to those without fixed broadband servicing their home or business premises.

See the report at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2645771

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Electric Co-ops as a Vehicle for Bringing Fiber to Rural Areas

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I recently listened to an interview with Randy Klindt, General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, a rural electric co-op building a gigabit fiber network in Central Missouri. It reminded me that the nation’s rural electric co-operatives can be effective vehicles for deploying advanced communication infrastructure in relatively high-cost and underserved rural areas.

Like most electric co-ops, Co-Mo serves a very rural area. Its service area spans 2,300 square miles and includes roughly 31,000 electric meters. That’s only about 13.5 meters per square mile.

As Klindt points out, member owned co-ops like Co-Mo have a different perspective than private companies when it comes to investment horizons. While the latter tend to prefer payback in a 3-5 year timeframe, co-ops view both electricity and communication networks as long-term infrastructure investments with payback timeframes in the 10-20 year range.

According to Klindt, Co-Mo, as a member-owned organization, approached the network investment as a long-term economic development project. He also notes that it was funded without the benefit of government grants or loans (Co-Mo had applied for funding under the ARRA broadband stimulus program, but its application was not approved).

The co-op is also using the network to support smart grid functionality for its core electric power business, which improves the project’s overall economics. And, like other electric utilities, Co-Mo already has in place much of the infrastructure needed to support construction, maintenance, billing and customer service for a communication network within its footprint.

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