Levelling Up Can Only Be Delivered If Broadband Is Accessible For All Rural Communities
Broadband connectivity is still lagging behind in some rural areas
Poor broadband connectivity and mobile phone signal are still endemic in rural communities, and must be fixed if ministers want to deliver their levelling up agenda.
If the government is to meet its laudable aims of levelling up the whole of the United Kingdom, improving broadband provision will be key. Poor broadband access and mobile phone signal are endemic problems across my constituency of Penrith and The Border. It has been an intractable issue that my predecessors have tried to confront with only partial success.
The government has an ambition to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to 85 per cent of the UK by 2025. Unfortunately, the reality in my constituency is that gigabit availability languishes at 7.2 per cent. I have made it my mission to try to bridge the connectivity gap.
The need for decent broadband (and indeed mobile phone coverage) has been brought into sharp relief by the pandemic. Hybrid working and home schooling require a broadband connection that can support video as well as audio.
We have seen some progress connecting homes, and I pay tribute to the fantastic work of network provider Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) in bringing broadband to remote areas of my constituency, such as Kirkoswald, where it joined forces with a group of residents to improve provision for the village.
Furthermore, we need broadband infrastructure as it is so essential for businesses in a modern, high-speed economy where customers could be in Penrith, Penzance or Paris. In my rural constituency, farmers also need to be able to process their payments online, which is a constant concern.
For my part, I have campaigned ceaselessly on this issue, raising it repeatedly with digital ministers. Just last month I led a debate in the House of Commons on levelling up rural communities in Cumbria. Bridging the digital connectivity gap was a key part of that.
An area where I am pleased the government has listened is on emergency service masts being available to commercial providers. The extended area service (EAS) programme is designed so emergency services can obtain signal in rural areas.
The government has now made a number of masts available to commercial operators and intends to make more sites live in the coming years. My constituents are often not worried about who provides the signal as long as they have a strong and reliable connection.
Broadband is also essential for the functioning of local democracy. Many parish council meetings have gone online during the pandemic (as we witnessed with the Handforth parish council meeting made famous by Jackie Weaver). I have pushed for those vital councils to have the flexibility to conduct sessions virtually when required, and have raised this repeatedly and directly with the Secretary of State for Local Government.
This is obviously only possible if there is a stable broadband connection in the homes of all those who need to attend. Democracy is for all, and we should continue to utilise modern technology to ensure participation is as wide as possible.
In addition, I am pressing the case with government that they should not be moving the BBC to a subscription model. Many homes in my area rely on terrestrial TV and have poor or no internet at all.
They rely on our precious and treasured public service broadcasters like the BBC, so important for news, education, sport and drama. Yes, the BBC needs reform, but we must protect and support it; my rural communities depend on it.
Overall, there is some good progress with the government’s “Project Gigabit” and the Shared Rural Network but we need to see more results. I would reiterate that levelling up can only be achieved by bringing all regions of the UK into the ultra-fast digital age, and that means including our rural areas.
Neil Hudson is the Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border
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