https://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2020/01/farmers-survey-highlights-poor-uk-rural-mobile-and-broadband.html

ISP Review

Mark Jackson
Once again the National Farmers Union has published the results from its annual online and telephone based survey of several hundred members, which found that just 17% of farmers had access to “superfast broadband” (24Mbps+) speeds (up from 16% last year and 4% in 2015) and 15% have no indoor mobile signal at all.

Admittedly farmers tend to work in some of the United Kingdom’s most sparse and remote rural areas, which often end up being last on the list to be upgraded (if they’re improved at all) due to the economic challenges of building expensive networks to cater for so few users over a wide area. As such the fact that they suffer a greater proportion of connectivity problems will come as no surprise.

At present 96.5% of premises can access a “superfast broadband” connection (here), which is thanks in no small part to the state aid funded Building Digital UK scheme and earlier commercial deployments. Meanwhile Ofcom’s recent Connected Nations 2019 report found that the outdoor geographic coverage of 4G services across the UK is still painfully low at 66% from all four mobile operators combined (80% indoor) or 91% from any one of those four operators.

The coverage of both mobile and fixed broadband services has of course improved a lot over the past few years, but this won’t mean much to those who have been left waiting for better connectivity to arrive. Admittedly in some areas it’s also possible that a better service could already exist but the locals may not have realised yet (awareness remains a common issue), although sadly this survey isn’t detailed enough to show that.

Key Findings from the 2019 NFU Survey

Broadband

  • 30% have download speeds of 2Mbps or less (down from 42% last year).
  • 17% have access to superfast download speeds of 24Mbps+ (up from 16% last year).
  • 90% believe broadband is essential for their business (up from 89% last year).
  • 36% believe their broadband speed is sufficient for the needs of their business (up from 23% in 2015).
  • 26% said slow broadband speeds / poor broadband was a barrier to further use of digital technology (down from 37% last year).

Mobile

  • 15% of respondents have no indoor signal at all (better than 16% in 2015)
  • 84% of smartphone users have access to 4G (up from 83% last year).
  • 41% believe the signal they receive is sufficient for the needs of their business (up from 38% last year).
  • 47% of mobile phones owned are internet enabled.

The survey also noted how 38% believe that the government should provide the same service / infrastructure for rural communities as urban ones.

Stuart Roberts, NFU Vice President, said:

“It really is completely unacceptable that in this high-tech digital age we appear to have a two-tier system of haves and have nots.

British farming is first and foremost a business which relies on having fast and reliable access to the internet, yet as our new survey shows more than 4 in 10 of our members feel they still don’t have adequate access to broadband services needed to run a modern-day farming business.

And it’s not just the farming business that’s impacted. A lack of mobile signal can have potentially serious consequences if you need to call for help in an emergency while working alone, and issues of mental wellbeing from feeling isolated can also be affected without having someone to talk to on the other end of a phone.

The current pace of broadband change and mobile connectivity in rural Britain is unacceptably too slow. The introduction of 5G and fibre broadband technology in cities means that, without action, the gap between urban and rural areas will continue to widen. That is why we are urging government and the telecommunications industry to make tackling the lack of rural connectivity a priority.

We will continue to campaign for investment in the country’s digital infrastructure so farming businesses and the rural economy can continue to meet their huge potential not only as food producers but in helping to tackle climate change and deliver on our net zero ambitions.”

The Government would no doubt argue that they’ve already made improving national broadband and mobile connectivity a priority. For example, from March 2020 those in areas of poor broadband connectivity will be able to request a minimum download speed of at least 10Mbps via the new Universal Service Obligation (here), although most of that is likely to be tackled by using 4G based mobile broadband services.

Otherwise the new Government supported, but industry-led, £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) aims to extend geographic 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK but this won’t complete until 2025. Separately the Government has also committed £5bn to help “gigabit-capable broadband” reach every home by 2025 (here), which has a focus on the final 20% of rural areas; on the other hand this time-scale is very optimistic.

Lest we also forget that the Building Digital UK projects, including various voucher schemes, still hope to extend the coverage of “superfast broadband” to around 98%, although it’s difficult to know quite how close they’ll get to that and when (probably within the next couple of years or so). At present most such projects and contracts today are focused upon fostering “full fibre” technology.

We should add that Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own projects to improve superfast broadband and full fibre coverage (here, here and here).

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