Rural connectivity in the post-pandemic age

rural connectivity

When it comes to business and the impact of Covid-19, agility and connectivity have been the buzzwords right from the get-go.

Quite literally overnight, employers and employees adapted their working practices as the ‘work from home’ mantra became loud and clear. And, to answer that call, our personal and professional digital lives have had to come to the fore.

Almost one year into the pandemic and estimates indicate that one in three of us are still working from home. While homeworking may now be the ‘new normal’ for many, it has also exposed many digital inequalities between urban and rural communities. And these inequalities are not necessarily new.

With lockdown restrictions putting a sharp focus on how and where we work, the communication issues faced by remote workers in our rural areas and the challenges of getting our rural connectivity up to speed.

The broadband issue

Historically, rural communities have been poorly served by digital and telecom services, hampered by a lack of investment and infrastructure as well as their isolated locations.

Currently 95% of UK premises are within reach of a fixed superfast broadband connection, but in less densely populated rural communities, many properties are too far away to access these connections. Rural communities also have less consumer choice when it comes to their service provider. As there are significant costs involved in installing new networks, many service providers focus on where it is most economically viable, meaning more sparsely populated or remote rural areas are down the list when it comes to any upgrades.

However, there is hope on the horizon for those living and working in an area that cannot get a Fixed Superfast Connection, which few are aware of. The Scottish government R100 project [] offers the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme (SBVS) – with two options which are currently open throughout 2021.

  • A voucher worth up to £5,000 to help deliver a permanent broadband connection to those properties for which there is no roll-out of superfast broadband planned.
  • A voucher worth up to £400 to help deliver an interim connection to those properties for which there is roll-out of superfast broadband planned, but not until after the end of 2021. Properties in more difficult-to-reach locations may be eligible for an additional subsidy of £250.

We are working with business across Aberdeenshire to help them apply for this voucher. This is a free services where we assess the availability for you.

Rural businesses feeling the disconnect

According to a recent National Farmers’ Union (NFU) survey, more than four in 10 farmers say they still don’t have the fast and reliable broadband they need to run a modern-day farming business.

The pandemic has served to only exacerbate these frustrations, with an increased need for efficiency at a critical time for food production whilst dealing with clients, customers and other producers in a virtual business world. This discord in digital connectivity is also hampering many farming and rural businesses looking to incorporate new and emerging innovations – including green technology - into their production processes so they can remain competitive as the UK strives to redefine itself on the global market stage.

The NFU is now calling on the Government to ‘level up’ these digital inequalities so that the rural community doesn’t get left behind. And this means establishing the infrastructures needed to bring the superfast broadband speeds currently available to 95% of the UK to the estimated 1.6 million properties, predominately rural, that are still affected by inadequate internet access.

The Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme can go some way towards assisting these groups. The speeds delivered are 30+ Mb and can be increased to 80 – 100 Mbps on request. Where geography and availability are limited, groups of properties can apply together with a combined application to improve the potential access.

Inequalities in home working

Issues of rural broadband connections have also highlighted inequalities when it comes to working from home. With many rural residents commuting to the bigger towns and cities such as Aberdeen for their work, the sudden move to home working due to the pandemic has proved to be challenging.  The disparity between the connectivity in their workplace and home has meant many employees have been unable to work effectively away from the office due to a lack of reliable internet connections. It has, in many cases, also contributed to feelings of isolation.

And with this clear shift in the way we work – and where – looking likely to remain the norm for many after the lifting of lockdown restrictions, the need for faster broadband speeds and more equal access in rural communities must be a priority.

Since the opening of the Scottish Broadband Voucher Scheme, which has been available since August 2020, hundreds of applications have been made for the voucher in Aberdeenshire. So, it’s well worth exploring this grant for those struggling with remote access in this area. Individuals and businesses can access our free service to assess availability and to submit an application.

Securing rural communities for the future

Reliable high-speed broadband should be at the heart of helping to sustain our rural communities, both in the short term and for the future. Many rural areas have been experiencing the effects of steady depopulation over the years, due to the widening ‘opportunity gap’ between urban and rural communities.

But with improved connectivity, this gap can be narrowed as many opportunities for education, progression and employment can be accessed without the need to physically move away. Improved digital access will also support rural businesses to evolve, thrive and grow, ultimately creating more local opportunities for employment and enterprise. And in turn, this can attract more people and families into the area and also help to support and retain the population as they age.

The SBVS scheme can also support rural sustainability as it may be available to provide a gigabit-capable connection to a public building which enhances a public service. The surrounding area may then also become increasingly viable for commercial intervention, stimulating the market to build more networks in these areas.

What is needed – now and for the future

As we tentatively look towards a post-Covid future, the shift towards more home working seems here to stay – this is one genie that is not going back into its bottle! Businesses and enterprises that were forced to rapidly adapt to a locked down world have now seen the benefits of remote working and the role that digital technology has to play in sustaining their business.

But as we look to the short and long-term, the issue of connectivity inequalities needs to be addressed to ensure our rural communities not only continue to survive but thrive.  And that means access to faster broadband speeds and greater consumer choice.

In 2019, the Government launched its £200m UK Rural Gigabit Broadband Connectivity Programme, which aims to pilot new ways to install full fibre internet in rural ‘hub’ locations, including schools as well voucher schemes for nearby businesses and homes. With the pilot’s intended completion of March 2021 inevitably delayed due to the impact of the pandemic, the importance of widespread reliable and fast broadband is more relevant than ever. And none more so than in our rural areas.

Over the last year, businesses of all sizes have clearly shown that running a business can be done remotely, as long as you have the right tech, systems and protections in place. And this starts with fast and reliable broadband.

Now we have to ensure we all have equal access to the connectivity we need to cement these new working practices as there really is no going back.