8 November 2023

Bridging the digital divide is key to the future of our rural communities

By Simon Fell MP

We increasingly live, work, communicate, shop and entertain ourselves online. Businesses have been revolutionised with the arrival of digital connectivity – in many cases, bringing an end to being forced to choose between a well-paying job or staying in the community you love.

I am proud that Britain has been at the forefront of these innovations. Wider access to digital opportunities has expanded, particularly with regards to the rollout of fibre broadband and 4G. But our ambition to become a global tech superpower must benefit the entire country. That means fully realising the opportunities generated by digital technology across the country, enabling all nations and regions of the UK to contribute and prosper in a connected Britain where geography does not limit your opportunity. 

Across the UK, through trenches being dug, cables strung between poles, masts erected, and satellites connected, there are huge programmes of work being undertaken to expand gigabit fibre broadband access to 85% of premises by 2025, and to 100% by 2030 and to deliver 4G coverage to 95% of UK landmass by 2025.

Consumers are hungry for more and more reliable data to enable their streaming, gaming, video calling and, yes, work. That need will only grow and the technology which underpins it – and which will enable new services to launch and prosper – continues to evolve. We must stay ahead of the curve.

5G is one such example. It has the potential to bring huge economic benefits – the Government’s own Wireless Infrastructure Strategy suggests as much as £150bn – and can give communities a robust and reliable connection where fibre to the premises is either not logistically possible, or extremely costly to deliver. 

But we risk the creation of a digital divide. Project Gigabit and the Shared Rural Network are government programmes, working with industry, which are designed to bridge that gap. But we must always keep an eye on the next iteration of this technology and ensure that rural communities also see the benefit. Currently our cities and towns perform drastically better than rural areas in terms of 5G coverage. 

According to new Vodafone UK research published this week, 46% of the most deprived rural constituencies are classified as 5G not-spots, meaning they have no 5G coverage at all. This compares to just 2.7% of urban constituencies with a similar degree of deprivation. My own constituency of Barrow and Furness, in the North of England, fares poorly on both of these measures.

This research lays bare the challenge we face to bring connectivity to our most deprived rural communities to match the rest of the country, and to ensure that millions of people are not left out from the future innovations that standalone 5G can provide. We need to deliver ‘nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030, ensuring that we can bring its full benefits to villages and rural communities well beyond cities and towns’ as set out in the Government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy.

Some of these innovations are already a reality, and simply need connectivity as the final piece of the puzzle. Whether it be in agriculture, with 5G-enabled sensors measuring soil quality and crop health, or in healthcare with virtual wards, 5G can bring tangible improvements to productivity, efficiency and quality of life.

What’s more, these innovations have the potential to have even more of a transformational impact in rural areas than in more densely populated parts of Britain. We know that living in rural areas presents unique challenges for healthcare access, whether due to distance, poor transport connections, or a mixture of both. Loneliness and isolation can also be exacerbated, impacting people’s mental health. 5G connectivity is fundamentally desirable because it can keep people connected to their family and friends with ease, in a way that has never before been possible.

As the government’s first Rural Connectivity Champion, I am proud that this government has made tackling this divide a priority as part of its Wireless Infrastructure Strategy. I am committed to driving progress forward to ensure we can realise these opportunities and the difference that they can make to local communities across the country.

But this research is a timely reminder of what still needs to be done, and the cost of not pursuing these goals as a matter of urgency. Some 4.87m people – nearly double the population of Manchester – live in rural constituencies classed as 5G not-spots. Without the necessary investment, the rural digital divide will only widen. The stakes are high.

For too long, geography has dictated economic circumstances. The digital revolution has the potential to right this wrong and secure a more equal future in which all parts of the UK are better connected, and therefore better enabled to share in the benefits that future technologies will bring. Unlocking 5G infrastructure across the country can go a long way in making this a reality.

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Simon Fell MP is the Government’s Rural Connectivity Champion and the Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.