The UK’s digital story of unequal outcomes has been laid bare by the pandemic
Those living and working in the countryside must have the same digital access as their urban counterparts. It’s time for government to rise to the rural connectivity challenge
The digital age is one of a closer, more linked-up world. Digital innovations have connected friends, families and businesses in ways unimaginable when I was first elected to Parliament in 2001. As the MP for Orkney and Shetland, one of the most rural UK constituencies, I regularly see how digital technologies connect us to the rest of the country.
Covid-19 has heightened the importance of digital connectivity for rural communities. That the pandemic is happening at a time when new technologies can bring us together from a distance is one of the few comforts in our current predicament.
Digital is a lifeline for many in this uncertain time. Enhanced by improved broadband and mobile coverage, flexible and remote working have been normalised by the pandemic. Online businesses have been boosted by improved connectivity. GP appointments can now take place remotely, saving vital travel time and resources.
New technologies have even enabled me to conduct digital surgeries with constituents in Orkney and Shetland from London, and hold meetings with people all around the world from Orkney. Digital connectivity’s importance for rural communities must not be underestimated.
That being said, the UK’s digital story is one of unequal outcomes, laid bare by the pandemic. Discussing the importance of digital connectivity for rural areas without bringing to light its problems is a disservice to those left behind by the national digital uplift.
Patchy mobile coverage and slower broadband speeds in rural areas are symptomatic of the UK’s digital divide. With reliance on digital technologies greater than ever before, it is critical that this is addressed.
There can be no denying the enhanced challenges of rural connectivity delivery. With broadband, there is an inherent geographical challenge. Often, more difficult terrain and spread-out populations mean greater engineering challenges to overcome compared to those in densely populated, more commercially viable, urban areas.
Recent improvements are most welcome. Public-private partnerships, such as the Digital Scotland Superfast Broadband (DSSB) programme, have connected premises that would otherwise be excluded if left to market forces.
However, the rural-urban divide persists and, in Scotland, the delayed signing of the predominantly rural R100’s North lot, the successor to DSSB, is a worrying sign. Ofcom’s latest Connected Nations report, reissued in March 2020, highlights that 97% of residential premises in urban areas across the UK have fixed superfast broadband access. This drops to just 79% in rural areas. This is a gap that must be closed.
Mobile coverage faces similar challenges and is also less reliable in rural areas. Ofcom highlights that just 62% of rural areas are covered by 4G, a stark contrast with 96% of urban areas. Again, the trend is an overall improvement, but rural mobile connectivity faces an immense challenge.
It is therefore vital that projects such as the UK government’s Shared Rural Network and the Scottish government’s 4G Infill programme are delivered in full and on time.
New digital technologies are vital to the way we live and work, especially during these uncertain times. Without digital infrastructure, the pandemic would wreak further social and economic havoc.
The benefits of digital connectivity are immense yet more needs to be done for rural communities to reap the benefits. Once lauded as a major disrupter, digital is now integral to our daily lives. As we move forward, rural areas must not be left behind.
Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland