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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Broadband providers should be incentivised to overcome the barriers to rural connectivity

3 min read

Lack of access to what is increasingly considered a basic utility contravenes agendas of equality and fairness. It’s time to close the urban-rural digital divide

Being able to call Brecon and Radnorshire home is undoubtably a privilege. With its natural beauty and wildlife matched only by its warm community, it is hard to imagine that living in this pocket of the world could have any drawbacks – sadly, that is not the case.

From my days on the campaign trail in December 2019, to the very first day after being elected, and still today, I have been inundated by constituents contacting me about the weak or non-existent broadband connectivity that exists across mid-Wales.

Each week, when I travel from my home in Powys to the very heart of London, I am pleasantly reminded of the contrasts between the two. But these two poles become starkly evident when connectivity is considered.

To put this into context, in Westminster average download speeds often exceed 500Mbps, not to mention the availability of 4G and 5G mobile data connectivity. On a really good day my home in Crickhowell, just 45 minutes from Cardiff and a few hundred metres from the main road, will reach 9Mbps. And I am one of the lucky ones in South Powys; the number of ‘notspot’ areas mean that there is no broadband connectivity in some areas whatsoever.

Back at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when working from home for many was a new venture, a constituent emailed to seek assistance in having either broadband or mobile connectivity extended to her home. This particular case stood out to me because the lady was emailing from her car, parked a mile from her home, as this was the closest available point from which to successfully send a message.

Given the volume of emails that I send each day, the number of Zoom meetings that I attend or, when I get the chance, how much Netflix I watch, I could not begin to imagine the level of inconvenience this lady must feel.

I appreciate that being somewhat isolated is considered a part of rural life; where your nearest neighbour could be two miles down the road, or even in the next valley. Similarly, being unable to connect to the wider world has not always been the wish of some, and I fully respect that. However, in 2021, the choice to be connected should be universal.

Larger broadband providers should be encouraged and incentivised to overcome the barriers to rural broadband, and if they are not willing to do this, smaller local service providers should be tasked with the essential work of connecting up our rural areas.

While there remains work to be done, it is important to note that real progress in addressing our connectivity challenges continues each day. Collaboration between the private sector and the UK and Welsh governments on broadband rollout means that more of my constituents are getting connected for the first time. I warmly welcome this, but both governments need to give themselves ambitious targets to deliver so that one of the few benefits of Covid – very few – is kept long after the virus is eradicated.

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