Why faster broadband is new national priority – Andrew Vine

MY internet is working at a snail’s pace. Rather than zooming down the information superhighway, I’m chugging along in a clapped-out old banger that refuses to budge out of second gear.

Everybody I know is suffering the same frustration as they watch that little wheel of doom on the laptop screen whirl interminably, drumming their fingers impatiently whilst each file takes an age to download.

Mine’s been so slow on occasion that it revives memories of the bad old days of dial-up connections which broadband was supposed to banish.

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And this in a big city, less than a mile from the BT exchange through which my internet is provided. Goodness knows how bad the connections are in Yorkshire’s more remote areas.

Fast and reliable broadband is now a national infrastructure priority, writes Andrew Vine.

Lockdown is to blame, of course. As soon as millions swapped their offices and classrooms for the kitchen table or spare bedroom, the massive upsurge in demand on home broadband slowed everything down. Frustration at this is only part of the problem. Slow connections are potentially harming companies, by hampering the speed at which their staff can work.

Children may suffer, too. It’s quite enough of a challenge for them and their parents to keep up with lessons without the additional delays to downloading material vital to learning.

We’ve long had a problem in our country with access to fast, reliable broadband for all and this past year of crisis has underlined the urgent need for the Government to act.

Even when lockdown has been eased, many more people are going to spend part of their working week at home, as caution about sparking a new surge in the pandemic becomes the norm and companies save money by moving to smaller, cheaper offices. There is already a demand from staff for flexibility, as they have found a mix of home and office fits better around family and childcare commitments. This cultural change demands that Britain gets vastly improved broadband.

Poor broadband is continuing to hold back the rural economy.

It is as important a strategic issue as having a railway system fit to cope with the demands of the 21st century, or a roads network that allows businesses to transport their goods efficiently and on time.

Successive governments have recognised this, but been guilty of a dismal failure to get to grips with it. Here in Yorkshire, we know to our cost slow broadband is the bane of countless businesses’ lives in rural areas. It holds them back and is a serious obstacle to expanding and creating jobs.

That in turn is a key factor in the cycle of decline that so many market towns and villages suffer from, as the lack of jobs forces young people to move away to cities in search of work.

This cries out for action, yet a damning report by the Public Accounts Committee holds out only the prospect of the countryside being sold out yet again over broadband. A litany of failures means that the loudly-trumpeted Government pledge of ultra-fast broadband for all by 2025 won’t happen.

People 'working from home' in the lockdown is putting broadband connections under intense pressure.

Worse, the committee believes that in a scramble to achieve a scaled-back target of 85 per cent of all properties, the Government is likely to prioritise densely-populated urban areas, and rural towns and villages “would once more go to the back of the queue”.

The countryside can’t afford that. Rural deprivation is already being made worse by poor broadband and the prospect of having to struggle with it for years to come – especially against a backdrop of trying to recover from the economic blow dealt by the pandemic – could cause irreparable harm.

All the talk about levelling up the economy from the Government amounts to hollow words unless it gives rural areas the broadband it deserves – and also improves urban connections.

Nor can any ambition for a massive expansion of the digital economy be taken seriously without such action.

Fast broadband has become such a fundamental necessity that it deserves a much higher priority in Government policy.

At present, it is lumped together with cyber security and online harms somewhere within the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

It shouldn’t be there, but under the banner of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which would be a proper acknowledgement of its importance because it’s at the heart of the way we work.

The wheel of doom isn’t just a frustration for everybody trying to get their work done – it’s the symbol of a country stuck in the slow lane when it needs to be putting its foot down.

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