Help for digitally excluded as businesses continue to suffer

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COUNTRYSIDE communities enduring social isolation due to exclusion from the 21st century’s digital revolution are to be offered more help as campaigners warn entrepreneurial spirit in rural areas is continuing to be undermined by a lack of adequate broadband.

Half of rural small businesses are dissatisfied with the quality of their broadband, showing they are in the “digital slow lane”, according to a new report by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Researchers found the issue would become more critical as small firms became increasingly reliant on a high quality broadband connection.

FSB national policy chairman Mike Cherry said: “This research paints a worrying picture of a divided business broadband landscape in the UK and, unless addressed, highlights a clear obstacle to growth in the coming years. We risk seeing the emergence of a two-speed online economy resulting from poor rural broadband infrastructure.”

He said as many as 14 per cent of small firms still view the lack of a reliable broadband as being the primary barrier to growth.

“A reliable connection is now viewed as a key business requirement by 94 per cent of small UK businesses, yet continued poor connectivity in rural areas represents a huge missed opportunity for economic growth in many parts of the country,” he added.

“These gaps and weaknesses need to be addressed as a matter of priority.”

In North Yorkshire, NYnet has already provided a network that would allow 150,000 of North Yorkshire’s 379,000 business and housing properties to connect to super fast broadband, and when that figure is combined with those able to connect through BT and Virgin, approximately 90 per cent of properties have access.

However, only around 30 per cent are connected, John Moore, chief executive of NYnet said.

“We are trying to create the opportunity for businesses to take up super fast, but we can’t make them,” he added. “When you look at other rural areas, like Lincolnshire or Northumberland, we are ahead of everyone else.”

While crucial to the success of small businesses, broadband was also essential for maintaining a “vibrant community”, he said.

“It’s about creating jobs, retaining the population and enabling them to be part of the 21st century as libraries, banks and buses disappear,” Mr Moore added.

Rural Action Yorkshire (RAY) has secured funding to help those where exclusion from the digital world can be made even worse by geographical isolation.

It will offer free basic Internet training to anyone struggling to get online at community venues across North, South and West Yorkshire.

RAY’s digital inclusion officer, James Russell, said: “There is an increasing need for people to get online, whether to keep in touch with friends and family, to access public services, or for work.

“This need is especially pressing in rural areas, where farmers will soon be expected to carry out all their admin online, and where geographical isolation can make being connected online even more important.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, said it was investing £1.7bn in taking superfast broadband to millions of rural businesses and homes.

He added: “Nearly 80 per cent of the UK can already access superfast speeds so we’d urge businesses to check whether they can benefit.”