Anne McIntosh: Don’t let remote areas miss out on fast internet

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LIFE in North Yorkshire is becoming increasingly dependent on the internet.

Farmers process their animal movements, school children their homework and other learning activities, others access council services and submit their income tax forms all online.

Yet there is evidence that the hardest to reach areas, usually the areas in which the farms and rural businesses are based, are being left behind when it comes to broadband and digital services.

The minimum speed is deemed to be two Megabits yet this already is outdated with many recognising 10 Megabits as being a more realistic minimum speed. The EU has set 30 Megabits as the minimum speed by 2020.

What is causing concern and disappointment in Thirsk, Malton and Filey is the fact that while the deadline for delivering superfast speeds is slipping generally, only 82 per cent of the area will achieve so called superfast broadband by 2016/17. That leaves 18 per cent of the very rural, sparsely populated area without superfast broadband access, precisely in the area where the farms and rural businesses are situated.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, which I chair, has launched a major report this month on rural broadband and digital-only services.

We firmly conclude that Government plans to transform UK broadband must not leave rural farms, businesses and homes offline or on slow connections. We fear hard-to-reach rural communities are being overlooked in the race to upgrade basic broadband to superfast for 95 per cent of the country’s premises by 2017.

There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none.

In our report, we raise concerns that a focus on improving access for most of the country may leave a minority with little or no ability to use key government services switching to online-only or mainly online delivery.

Government plans to transform broadband require 95 per cent of premises to have superfast speeds of 24 Megabits per second by 2017, although BT told the Committee that the target might slip into 2018.

There is a concern that the current broadband rollout targets are based on inaccurate assumptions that universal basic broadband coverage has largely been achieved, when the reality is that many rural communities are still struggling with no access, or slow broadband speeds.

Upgrading the majority who already have access to basic broadband may be creating an even bigger gap between those with and those completely without broadband access.

As regards broadband delivery, speed and delivery are vital components of the broadband rollout plan. The majority of broadband available in the UK is currently delivered by fixed-line methods, requiring a physical cable between premises and street cabinets.

The most popular delivery method being Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC). FTTC can present two main problems. Firstly, the further you are from the cabinet, the slower the broadband your premise received. Secondly, there remain some premises where the infrastructure simply cannot reach.

As well as investigating alternative broadband delivery methods, access to satellite broadband through vouchers for those who are unable to access fixed-line broadband or broadband of basic speeds should also be examined. We are also keen that the Government promote alternatives like fibre to node linking to the premises by a telegraph pole.

As the basic and superfast broadband is rolled out, the minimum speed committed to by the Government is 2 Megabits per second. The committee strongly recommends that this speed is too slow, must be reassessed and a new minimum speed identified.

The Universal Service Commitment of two Megabits per second (Mbps) is already outdated. This is a minimum speed commitment to the public and it must reflect modern technological demands, it is not high enough; 10 Mbps is a more suitable target. Further, it should be regularly reviewed to ensure the UK does not slip behind other European countries.

From this January , all CAP funding applications must be made online-only. This is part of a wider Government policy for services to become ‘digital by default’.

Farmers are key drivers of the rural economy . Ensuring that all farmers are able to access the new online-only CAP applications later this year is absolutely vital. The new CAP represents a change in the system and delivery. Defra and the Rural Payments Agency must draw on lessons learnt in the past to minimise the risk of further disallowance and also ensure that all farmers have adequate access to the system.

People depend on the internet and, as became evident during the course of the inquiry, poor broadband coverage is not only an issue in remote, rural areas. Premises in developed, urban areas can face the same issues if they are located a long distance from their local street cabinet.

We welcome the Government’s ‘Innovation Fund’ as the first step towards providing broadband to the final premises without access, whether they are in rural or urban areas. We need to give farmers and rural businesses the tools they need to grow the rural economy.

Anne McIntosh is the Conservative MP for Thirsk, Malton and Filey. She is also chairman of Parliament’s environment select committee.