The digital discrimination against the countryside continues. In a consultation, which closed for responses last month, the Government admitted that although 95% of the country will be able to access superfast broadband by the end of next year, connecting the final 5% would not represent ‘value for money’.
The consultation document states that:
“We currently estimate that, even with BDUK’s existing intervention and continued commercial roll-out, up to 1 million UK premises will not be able to access speeds of 10Mbps or higher by the end of 2017. While these premises will be spread throughout the UK, and include homes and businesses in cities as well as very remote locations, we expect they will be predominantly in rural areas with more than half a million of these premises forecast to be in rural locations, and more than 100,000 in remote rural locations.”
Given the logistical difficulties and cost implications of connecting these final homes and businesses, the Government wants to now switch to a request-based system rather than continue the roll-out:
“We know from the various interventions that the Government has made to date that it is unlikely that everyone will want to be connected, even if that option is made available to them, and so we do not believe that an additional broadband roll-out programme at this time is proportionate or would represent value for money.”
There are numerous problems with this approach, not least its inevitable implication that rural residents are second class citizens in the eyes of the government.
But what is the difference between 10Mbps, the speed guaranteed by the government’s Universal Service Obligation, and 24Mbps or ‘superfast’ broadband? Matt Powell, Editor at Broadband Genie, explains:
“The most noticeable difference will be seen when downloading large files. At 10Mbps a 20GB file could take around 4 and a half hours, but at 24Mbps that’s reduced to just under 2 hours. The faster speed also means more people can use the connection at the same time without experiencing significant performance loss. This is especially helpful for demanding tasks like video streaming. Netflix recommends a speed of 5Mbps to watch HD video, so on a 24Mb connection you can watch a movie or TV show without drastically impacting the speed for everyone else, or even comfortably stream multiple videos at the same time.”
So lower speeds mean that businesses are less competitive, and households are less able to perform what many of us see as ‘everyday’ tasks. But there are also other, perhaps less obvious ramifications. For example, the NHS is increasingly looking to ‘telehealth’, where advice and care is delivered remotely, to provide cost-effective aid those in hard-to-reach areas. By restricting rural residents’ access to such services, the Government is creating a clear inequality and refusing to invest in what may well be life-saving, as well as cost-saving, technologies in years to come.
Furthermore, the idea that businesses and homes can simply ask to be connected also seems willfully naive – Hansard is full of impassioned speeches from rural MPs that demonstrate just how many people have lost their livelihoods through BT Openreach’s broken promises.
Overall, considering the pace of technological change, confining rural areas to limited speeds seems like a surefire way of killing them off. In just a few years speeds of 10Mbps may seem antiquated, and who knows what new services rural residents might miss out on as a result of new developments?
We can only await the consultation response, which should be published in the next few months, for confirmation of the government’s intentions.