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Welcome to broadband country

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

Bringing broadband to remote rural communities may be a priority for big business and government bodies, but what about those on the ground? What difference does it make to the UK’s rural community?

Bob Oakes has been an artist blacksmith for 25 years. His Cold Hanworth Forge and Blacksmithing School in Lincolnshire produces everything from domestic ironwork to sculptures, as well as specialist conservation work.

For rural businesses, success in the contemporary countryside means exploring new opportunities and Oakes has several irons in the fire, literally and metaphorically. As well as traditional blacksmithing, training is an increasingly important part of the mix and the forge now runs recreational and vocational blacksmithing courses. The next step is to branch out into the corporate “away-day” market, with the smouldering forge providing a dramatic focus for management team-building courses.

To prosper, today’s rural businesses have to forge links not only locally but also worldwide. High-speed broadband is at the heart of Oakes’ profile-raising strategy and the Web provides the Cold Hanworth Forge with a global shop window.

Through the broadband initiative “onlincolnshire” Atkins has delivered information communications technology (ICT) advice to nearly 500 SMEs such as this in the county. The Lincolnshire Broadband Initiative, backed by funding from the county council and the European Regional Development Fund, saw the roll-out of symmetrical broadband – which allows users to send and receive large volumes of data quickly.

“Broadband has made a tremendous difference,” says Oakes. “The whole of the teaching side of the business depends on the website – people can find us easily and book online, from all over the world. We’ve had students from New Zealand, America, Nigeria, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and France. And now I can upload presentations to our website quickly, something that would have taken hours to do before broadband.”

Wired for life

Nobody disputes the importance of broadband for the rural economy. The government’s rural affairs department, Defra, stresses that stimulating broadband and access to digital services is one of its top priorities. Local and regional initiatives with the Regional Development Agencies in England and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are spearheading the promotion of broadband on the ground.

“New technologies can help to counter the effects of peripherality and create new job opportunities,” says Ieuan Wyn Jones, Deputy First Minister and Minister for the Economy and Transport in the National Assembly for Wales.

“One of the main challenges faced by infrastructure providers relates to geography, distance and remoteness.

“New communications technologies clearly have the potential to overcome some of these constraints. The Welsh Assembly Government’s Rural Development Plan includes activities to ensure the development and proliferation of ICT in rural communities and businesses.”

Rather than basking in the white heat of a technological revolution, however, there are plenty of rural communities and businesses in Britain huddling around the dying embers of outmoded dial-up connections.

Part of the challenge for broadband providers comes right down to the wire. ADSL broadband, for example, is delivered using conventional copper-pair telephone lines, but exchanges must be adapted first. Signal quality decreases with distance, so subscribers must live relatively near the exchange – not a problem in urban areas, but making the case for investment in sparsely populated rural districts is not so easy.

“Analogue dial-up costs are going up and users are often getting a poor service,” says Stuart Robertson, head of Transport and Communications for Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE). “Often, the people who can’t get broadband also get very slow dial-up speeds. For people at the edges, it’s a triple whammy: no broadband, unreliable dial-up performance and an increasing cost of dial-up.”

The Connected Communities project, funded by HIE and other public bodies, and matched by the European Regional Development Fund, attempts to level the playing field. As part of the project, Atkins designed a wireless network to provide broadband to residents, businesses, schools and hospitals in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

ADSL is by no means the only way to deliver broadband – cable, wireless, 3G and satellite all offer high bandwidth – but each has its own advantages and disadvantages. And then there’s the question of equipment costs: somebody has to pay for the infrastructure.

“Privatisation of the telecoms industry means it’s principally driven by competition bringing benefit,” says Robertson, who is based in Inverness. “High-population areas get new services ahead of others.These services are often seen as very important for remote areas and small businesses, of which we have a lot. But we don’t get them until some years after urban centres, which to some extent may not rely on these services as much.”

For the public in rural areas, low-speed dial-up internet means slower downloads, plus limited or no access to services – including government services.

For rural businesses trying to maintain a competitive edge, the lack of broadband is potentially disastrous: the challenges of physical isolation are compounded by isolation from the electronic mainstream.

Grassroot investment

Spending public money on rural broadband – either in the form of direct subsidies to provide broadband in so-called geographical “blackspots” or through funds to promote greater public awareness – requires political justification and that, in turn, means being able to measure and make projections about future benefits.

Launched by the Welsh Assembly Government in 2002, the Broadband Wales Programme was set up to promote demand and improve broadband supply. In order to measure the success of the programme – and to estimate the long-term benefits to the economy as a whole – Atkins pioneered a new methodology that quantifies not only the high-level benefits of broadband, but also the benefits directly attributable to the Broadband Wales initiative itself.

“The process we developed uses economics tools and looks at the value derived over and above what you actually pay – the phrase economists use is ‘consumer surplus’,” explains Martin Siner, an economist with Atkins. Calculating bottom-line benefits also meant analysing causal chains – the knock-on effects of positive changes brought about through faster communications. “Broadband enables teleworking, teleworking reduces commuting time, reduced commuting time means reduced use of cars, which means reduced congestion and reduced carbon emissions. You can put a pound sign on those things.”

Getting connected

The struggle to secure broadband is the latest in a succession of battles fought by rural communities to secure infrastructure that cities take for granted. These battles are not new: a large number of rural areas in Britain had to wait until the end of WWII before they enjoyed electricity and water from the mains.

Today, mains gas and drainage are still not available in some rural areas, but the lack of broadband provokes a unique sense of indignation, and does so in a way that continued reliance on septic tanks and bottled gas simply does not. Could more be done to speed up the roll-out of rural broadband?

“It is easier to make the case for using public money when the lag has developed rather than before. To an extent, we have to sit and watch as rural areas fall behind and wait for the moment when we can make the case to put public money in,” says Robertson. “We’re effectively waiting to sort out a problem that we believe will arise at some time in the future.”

Certain developments are exacerbating the digital divide and one of them is the growing disparity between rural and urban internet connection speeds. When dial-up was the only option, the playing field was relatively level. But with broadband up to 40 times faster, this is no longer the case. At the same time, the rapid adoption of high-speed internet means that most Web content providers – from online retailers to service providers – are optimising their content for broadband. The gap between the broadband haves and the dial-up have-nots has never been greater.

“If the UK wants a policy where everybody gets access to a certain level of broadband service, we should acknowledge that there are some areas where the commercial sector has no incentive to go in early – and may never want to go to,” says Robertson. “It means putting public money in at the beginning of the roll-out rather than the end. If you can’t intervene until the end, the really remote areas will always suffer.” They, just like Oakes, are often the very ones who can benefit from broadband the most.

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