Will the rising tide lift all boats, or should rural areas bootstrap themselves into the digital age?
Alston, a town with slightly more than 1,000 inhabitants in the North Pennines about 30 miles from Carlisle and the Lake District, is the posterchild of smart rural Britain. Fibre-optic trenches there were dug by local farmers back in 2002 to provide state-of-the-art broadband to an area that internet service providers decided was commercially unviable.
The town hasn’t stopped there – it has also set up its own public EV charge point supported by a community share scheme that offers shareholders an interest-return from 2023 onwards. To make sure it’ll stay ahead of the curve, Alston is now seeking to establish its own 5G network.
Apart from a community success story, Alston is also representative of how rural communities are taking over the narrative from the usual urban and industrial areas when it comes to both their digital transformation and political consciousness.
The discourse about improving the standard of living for communities, for example, is strongly dominated by smart city projects. Granted, urban problems of air quality, congestion and crime loom much larger than rural ones and lend themselves more readily to a digital fix. Finding ways of harnessing the same technology to address the rural issues of depopulation, inaccessibility of services and patchy networks, however, is equally important.
The question is whether new digital and sustainability trends in the macroeconomy can lend rural Britain a higher priority than before. Is the levelling-up of the countryside going to be a positive externality of national economic development, or just a matter of rural areas having to pull themselves into the 21st century by their own bootstraps?
Can brexit lead to more rural 5G deployment?
January 2021 marked not only the end of Britain’s EU membership but also its break with the Common Agricultural Policy, which some argue was a barrier to environmental sustainability and efficiency as it rewarded and encouraged land use. This seems to be a good moment for the digitalisation of the sector with a view to increasing agricultural yields and share of GDP through automation, the extensive use of the IoT and data analysis.
Needless to say, these three, as well as other related digital technologies are predicated on connectivity, ideally on 5G in order to make it futureproof. But can the private digitalisation of farms – which account for almost 70 per cent of the UK’s land area – be the driving force to better rural connectivity?
A 2019 pilot project that set out to explore the commercial viability of 5G networks on Orkney found that none of the project’s commercial partners would run a similar project themselves without the involvement of Strathclyde University or government backing, and use cases such as the automated remote feeding and monitoring of salmon farms weren’t strong enough to drive commercial-only deployment.
The on-the-ground reality of Orkney is arguably better described by, for example, the struggle and financial burden of parents during lockdowns when trying to provide their children with the connectivity required for online learning.
Although with the current pace of technological development the maturity of 5G solutions in digital or precision agriculture may be a question of a few years, at the moment agri-tech is an unlikely candidate for ensuring state-of-the-art rural connectivity.
Patching up broadband and 4G networks
The government’s commitment to FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) coverage seems to have more immediate relevance to rural advancement. Even more so given many homes in remote areas have become home offices – some experts even go as far as to suggest that the UK’s appeal to foreign direct investment (FDI) may be affected by poorly connected rural home offices if remote working becomes the norm post-Covid.
Understandably, the government’s £5 billion commitment to provide full fibre to all homes and premises in the UK by 2025 seems to have fallen by the wayside after the first billion of funding had been released, as investments are diverted to other aspects of economic recovery. But although supplying the country with high-capacity, reliable FTTP broadband as soon as possible could be key to fending off countries trying to usurp the UK’s role as Europe’s leading tech development hub, most of the businesses – and families – based in the countryside don’t necessarily need gigabit-capacity broadband to thrive.
In a milestone act, Ofcom at least drew the bare minimum line in March 2020. Premises which are not provided with a download speed of 10Mbps and an upload speed of 1Mbps through a broadband connection or a 4G hub can now request an upgrade to their network. All costs below £3,400 per premises are covered by the Universal Service Obligation (USO) for Broadband Scheme. (According to estimates there are about 110,000 premises where costs will exceed this threshold.)
Another major step in addressing the low ROI of rural communication network projects is the government’s Shared Rural Network Scheme, starting this year. Three of the major four mobile network providers have agreed to build and share 200 masts by 2024 as an outcome of drawn-out negotiations initiated by the government (EE has committed to upgrading and expanding its own network to hundreds of rural areas this year).
Mobile networks can also provide home broadband through 4G Wi-Fi routers, but, relying on radio waves, they are often less robust and a limitless data usage plan for them may cost considerably more than a cabled broadband offer.
Supplying rural areas with connectivity without signal dropouts and so-called “not-spots” could go a long way towards making a better case for living and working there. Decent internet connections can make distance learning, filing tax returns and contacting government offices remotely, as well as getting instant medical diagnoses, far easier.
During lockdown, we have also seen examples of how the internet enabled bakers, butchers and dairy and arable farmers to set up platforms which served as convenient one-stop shops for high quality, curated local produce.
Here we go again – the EV charge network
Mobility is one of the strongest links between smart cities and rural areas. Electric cars designed to improve air quality and decrease carbon emissions fit nicely in with the countryside’s credentials for tranquillity and fresh air. Yet public EV charge points set up by commercial players and municipalities show the same kind of asymmetries as broadband and mobile networks.
People living in rural areas stand a better chance of having a drive and off-street charging than urbanites. But range anxiety, a fear of getting stranded in a remote place with no charge points whatsoever can hit anyone no matter where they live. And the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales to take effect in 2030 means that the rate of 7,000 charge points per year we’ve had on average for the last couple of years won’t cut it. To combat the discrepancies of progress between different regions, last year the government announced its ambition that no EV driver should be more than 30 miles away from a rapid (25-99kW), publicly accessible charging point at any time.
The government foots £50m of the bill that achieving this will amount to. It remains to be seen, though, how many small towns and villages will be able to follow in Alston’s footsteps, and how they will spread geographically – not all of them will have the means to match government funding, or the extra community time and effort to invest or a business-savvy project leader (such as Alston’s Daniel Heery) to lead the charge.
But not all UK towns and villages have the means to access matching government support, the eagerness to channel community time and effort into implementing modern technologies or a businessman such as Daniel Heery with the necessary drive and business acumen to lead the charge.