The next Government is being urged to invest in alternative solutions for the isolated rural communities left behind by the national rollout of superfast broadband by BDUK.
Rural Action Derbyshire is backing a call by its national body ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England) for a firm funding commitment in its 2015 manifesto to support the final 5% not covered by the programme.
The Government has pledged 95% of homes and businesses will be connected to superfast broadband by 2017 and says it is exploring how to extend the programme to the remaining 1.4m ‘hard to reach’ households - but has not indicated what funding or resources will be committed beyond the pilot schemes.
Rural Action Derbyshire CEO Sylvia Green said: “We welcome the investment this Government is making in looking at what solutions might work for these 1.4m households but they need to know that funding will be made available to roll out solutions to ensure they are not left behind.”
ACRE, the national voice for England’s 38 rural community councils, fears the most isolated villages could be left waiting years for the service – leading to a digital divide.
Sylvia Green said: “Superfast broadband is essential in a world where so many aspects of our lives are, and can only be, conducted online.
“Our concern is that the final 5% will all be in rural areas, leaving families, farmers and businesses out in the cold, creating a two-tier society. Families in rural communities often have to travel miles to access services, or to shop and bank and having superfast broadband would make a real difference. Getting online is also of huge benefit to those who are lonely or isolated.”
Rural Action Derbyshire’s plea came as the House of Commons Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee released its report on rural broadband and digital-only services.
In its summary, the committee noted that ‘the difficult geographical nature of some communities must not be used as an excuse for a lack of broadband or poor broadband speeds. These challenges should encourage investment and innovation in new types of technology’.
ACRE’s Head of Rural Insight Nick Chase said: “The obvious answer is for the next Government to invest in helping these ‘hard to reach’ communities to find alternative superfast broadband solutions.
“We have seen great innovation and partnerships that have already provided solutions for some rural communities. Wireless networks are up and running in Essex, East Yorkshire and Norfolk, for example – one group of villages even routes its network via a church tower.
“These solutions work for the communities, have their buy-in and have brought cost-effective superfast broadband to communities who could otherwise have been waiting years.
“Rural communities want to make things happen - but they need support from organisations like the ACRE Network and they need investment.
“Alternative solutions are out there - but taking them further will need commitment from the next Government to ensure investment is provided in rural areas as it has been for urban.”