Covid has created many changes in the way that we live, work and play due. Changes in work practices have had positive benefits in reducing carbon with less travel. They have also increased the importance of a good broadband service to homes as more people are seen to use this for basic business and zoom calls. Yet the data from FEP’s second How Fast How Good is Your Broadband challenges some of those basic assumptions.
Rural areas face the opportunities of Industry 4.0, which provides remote working and a better work-life balance; and the challenges of the Smart Economy, which assumes fast mobile and broadband for on-demand communication.
The Forest Is Ahead of Trend
Many assume that the numbers of homes using broadband for business will have increased due to the pandemic. This is not the case in the district of the Forest of Dean. When retired respondents are excluded from the sample, 81% of 151 respondents were using their broadband for business purposes. On the same basis this is down from last year’s 91% of 381 respondents. Based on these results the Forest of Dean is already an active player in Industry 4.0 with both home-based businesses and individuals already working from home before the pandemic.
What has increased is the mean average use of broadband which is now up to 42.6% of the time. Broadband at home is already a fundamental of rural businesses and workforces. Many of those services will be on so-called domestic contracts and therefore previously unseen.
Rural Areas Let Down by Communication Speeds
This year our survey and Ofcom’s May data shows how far behind rural households are to the Universal Service Obligation (USO) which came in March. 50% of our sample and 19% of the Ofcom rural sample do not receive a 10Mbps download speed. This is a significant gap. Much bigger than the 2% target. With so many not meeting the USO minimum this is a critical issue. Especially when USO allows for planned delays of up to 3 years from the initial complaint to remedy.
Nationally Ofcom shows the average download is 71.8Mbps with 63% getting more that 30Mbps through fibre to the cabinet, cable and fibre to the premises. The faster technologies are available to some but not all in the district as a result of the Fastershire programme of infrastructure upgrades with the exclusion of cable where the district is not served. Consumer uptake of the newer technologies is evident from our survey. But why more households do not upgrade is a puzzle. Partly it’s:
- the confusion of technologies available with unreliable names eg superfast guaranteed speeds below USO;
- the perception of previous promises being broken so why act now;
- consumer inertia- it’s the responsibility of the provider to supply a fast service as standard eg meeting USO not home-owners.
- deprived households being more likely to rely on ADSL2 so is lack of update due to poverty?
The solution lies in a shared focus on what is possible now. This is action by providers and residents to identify and deploy the best technical solutions for their rural geography, not continued blanket answers and delays based on old economic thinking.