Digital divide is holding back rural businesses
More than 85 per cent of rural businesses report their current internet as being either poor but manageable, or unmanageably poor.
Yet 80 per cent of rural businesses agree that ultrafast fibre connectivity would have the single biggest positive impact on their business recovery post-COVID. In fact, 32 per cent estimate it would help them recover twice as fast or more than without.
These findings are revealed in the Rural Business Report, which looks at the state and impact of rural internet speeds, published today by Gigaclear, the UK’s largest rural alt-net, in partnership with the Countryside Alliance,
The report, which surveyed more than 650 rural business owners, also found people were being forced to extreme lengths to get the internet connectivity they need to operate. One in five have had to resort to working out of a café or equivalent public space.
Other business owners have invested in 4G routers, or satellite internet access, on top of paying for their internet connection, to keep their businesses connected, significantly increasing business overheads when compared with urban businesses.
Whilst the vast majority of those asked said that ultrafast internet would have the single biggest positive impact on their businesses post-COVID, just eight per cent said more Government financial support would be the biggest help. Only three per cent said a bigger talent pool to recruit from or better road conditions. Two per cent said discounted importing and exporting. Less than one per cent said cheaper property maintenance.
During the UK lockdowns, 14 per cent of rural businesses closed permanently, but the rest saw their dependence on the internet increase for things like Zoom-based client meetings, supplier communications, online sales, online marketing and keeping up with COVID rules.
Gareth Williams, CEO of Gigaclear, said:, “The pandemic sharply underlined the importance of internet connectivity. For many business leaders, myself included, maintaining any level of business continuity through the various lockdown periods would have been nigh on impossible without functioning broadband.
“But, despite having one of the most advanced and sophisticated economies in the world, there are still areas of England where internet speeds are unable to meet basic needs such as sending an email or opening a webpage.
“Gloucestershire is predominantly rural, so this issue is felt even more keenly. Rural businesses remain at a major disadvantage because there are still some obstacles to overcome. For example, the negotiation of land access is one of the most significant causes of delay to building a rural ultrafast fibre broadband network. We hope that this research reinforces the need for legislation reform and shows how critical it is that UK Government acts to address the enduring barriers to rolling out gigabit capable infrastructure in rural communities.”
Sarah Lee, Director of Policy at the Countryside Alliance, added: “A successful rural economy is vital for maintaining a living and working countryside. As we move into a digital age the rural economy is becoming more reliant on digital connectivity.
“The countryside economy is already 16% less productive than the national average but has enormous untapped potential which good connectivity would help unleash. If you were to level up the countryside by delivering connectivity the economy has the potential to grow by up to £43bn in England alone.
“Whether you are running a farm B&B or a design agency, connectivity is vital for the success of any business. While the Government is hugely ambitious for a digital Britain, an ambition we fully support, it is currently the case that those running businesses in the countryside simply do not have the connectivity that they need and deserve. The Government must deliver on its ambition. Fundamentally, we should all be digitally connected, no matter where we live.”