Why we must prioritise investment into digital investment

Man working on laptop sat outside in rural area
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David Hennell discusses why it’s imperative for the future Prime Minister to prioritise digital investment as part of any future ‘Levelling Up’ plans

The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda was a key pillar of the campaign that delivered Boris Johnson his resounding victory in the 2019 election. However, as we look ahead to our next PM, there has been relatively little detail when it comes to future plans to ‘Level Up’ the country from either of our potential future leaders.

Whilst there’s a general consensus that the ‘Levelling Up’ of the United Kingdom has to remain a priority for the next Government, it’s now vital that we see strong words and rhetoric resulting in equally strong action/

A key aspect of any ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has to be bridging the ‘Digital Divide’. Access to fast and reliable broadband is essential for people in both their personal and professional lives, yet we still see a stark imbalance between its provision in urban and rural areas in the UK.

For those who are most digitally disadvantaged, quite simply nowhere near enough progress has been made to bridge this gap. If the next PM is to deliver on the promise of the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda for rural communities in the UK, further and more targeted digital investment will be crucial.

Have improvements in digital connectivity been delivered?

The initial promise from the Government following the 2019 election was to deliver gigabit-capable, full fibre broadband to every single property in the UK by 2025. This not only highlighted the Government’s grand plans to ‘Level Up’ the country but also underlined the importance of digital connectivity. The pledge was at best ambitious and at worst completely undeliverable, and the Government soon revised this to 85% of all UK properties by 2025 and ‘as close as possible to 100%’ by 2030.

However, although allowing for continued investment into improving broadband and digital infrastructure, this revised target meant that there was a severe risk of those in the most hard-to-reach and remote areas being forgotten and ignored.

As Government and broadband infrastructure providers look for the best return on investment, supplying remote and hard-to-reach areas with fibre broadband is frequently seen as too costly, so investment has tended to go elsewhere. Thus in terms of aiming for that 85% target, focus and funding have largely been geared towards more population-dense locations that are easier and cheaper to provision with full-fibre broadband – despite the fact that in general such areas already have access to perfectly fit-for-purpose and good quality connectivity.

Rural communities suffer from the poorest broadband speeds and worst digital connectivity

It is more rural communities that most frequently suffer from the poorest broadband speeds and worst digital connectivity in the country – and yet these are the areas being pushed to the back of the queue. So whilst the Government can point to examples of investment in digital infrastructure, the disparity between rural and urban areas has yet to be adequately addressed. These days, good quality broadband really ought to be seen as a basic need alongside other utilities, such as water and electricity.

Creating a truly digital-first society

The pandemic undoubtedly accelerated our growing reliance on digital infrastructure and connectivity, but it would be foolish to claim we haven’t seen this change coming for some time.

The benefits of improved digital connectivity are monumental. For the individual, it may be as simple as being able to access banking services online or maintaining contact with friends and family, but the impact this has on a person’s daily life cannot be understated. For example, having access to good quality broadband makes hybrid working possible, which can save money. It also enables individuals to run a small business from home, so the significant improvements good broadband can deliver to economic outcomes genuinely can uplift whole households and communities.

Yet we repeatedly see instances where rural homes and businesses are still asked to pay charges that can reach many thousands of pounds just to get broadband services that are suitable for their needs. It’s just not acceptable that numerous rural communities are overlooked, yet their access to high-quality broadband is every bit as crucial as it is for their urban counterparts. We are in the process of an inevitable transition to a ‘digital first’ society, so it’s absolutely vital that the Government ensures no one is left behind.

Driving economic growth in the UK with digital investment

A new study revealed that investing in digital infrastructure could help grow the UK economy by £232bn by 2040. Not only would fully connecting the UK transform the way we work and live but it would also have a huge impact on the productivity and output of society, radically improving the economy and creating jobs.

This is equally if not more vital for rural communities. Ensuring investment into digital infrastructure across the rural rubicon would have a revolutionary impact on rural Britain and reverse years of slow rural decay, by maximising the potential of a community that plays such a core role in our national prosperity.

Take the farming industry, for instance, an essential industry in rural economies and communities. This is an industry already clearly experiencing the negative impact of a lack of digital investment. The National Farming Union recently revealed that 30% of their membership had broadband speeds of less than 2Mbps and only 38% had speeds that were sufficient for the needs of their business. The fact that over a third don’t have access to the standard of broadband required for their business needs again goes to highlight how significant the ‘Digital Divide’ still is.

Such is the low base of digital infrastructure in some rural areas of the country, that it will take carefully targeted investment combined with much broader thinking in terms of broadband delivery technology to have the quickest and most transformative impact. Improving digital connectivity for rural Britain won’t just facilitate the use of exciting new technologies such as the Internet of Things. It will also have an immediate and marked positive effect on economic, social, health and educational outcomes in such locations, as well as potentially attract investment to create rural hubs of innovation in areas that for far too long have been left out to pasture.

Yet in 2022, we are still talking about the issue of farmers in the UK not having access to decent broadband. Surely in this day and age, digital deprivation is an issue that has to be addressed immediately or any talk of ‘Levelling Up’ the country is essentially meaningless.

It’s vital that rural businesses and communities in the UK are no longer ignored by the Government

It’s vital that rural businesses and communities in the UK are no longer ignored by the Government. Our next Prime Minister needs to not only look at urban environments but also invest in rural communities to bridge the digital divide. Without such investment, the promise of the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda will never be realised.


Written by David Hennell, Business Development Director, at alternative broadband specialists National Broadband


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