‘All we’ll need is good Wi-Fi’: why people’s post-pandemic plans to leave cities for rural retreats might be trickier than they think
Steven Leighton, CEO of Voneus, explains why low broadband speed in rural areas is holding back relocation and progress
The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the ongoing process of digitalisation in the UK. This is clear as we move further towards a cashless society, conduct business meetings, shop, socialise, learn, and even arrange and attend doctor’s appointments online or over the phone. In many ways, this is a very good thing: digitalisation is an extremely important process that facilitates economic growth and social mobility. But what happens when access to digital resources is distributed unevenly throughout the country?
Lack of connectivity is a huge barrier to business progression and this is often a problem for organisations looking to connect remote sites, or those trying to attract the best talent through offering flexible working conditions – and this is a very relevant point. The shift to remote working catalysed by the virus means many employees are now looking at more sustained periods of working from home than originally anticipated.
This has caused a lot of professionals based in cities to rethink their living situation, as employees no longer need to live within close proximity to their place of work. We have already started to see a trend of urbanites giving up their city base for the temptations of the countryside. For some, the move is an economic reality, as dwindling work and pay along with steep rent prices forces them out. For others, the health, space and economic benefits have just been too much to ignore.
Either way, the pattern looks set to continue in the long run, as research by Savills shows the pandemic has led 71 percent of under 40s to prioritise a garden or outdoor space when buying a house. In fact, for those who are foregoing transport links and location as priorities, the only real essential will be a working broadband connection. What many of these people will therefore be thinking to themselves is ‘all we’ll need is good Wi-Fi’.
But upon relocating, some of these people might be in for a bit of a shock if they expect to find the same broadband speeds as they’d become accustomed to within the city. Because although the pandemic has created this small migration away from urban areas, it has adversely caused a widening of the digital gap between urban and rural areas at a time when it is more of a problem than ever.
Broadband sales went through the roof at the start of lockdown providing a real indicator of increased demand – with sales of the highest speed broadband packages seeing a 99 percent increase. However, the infrastructure required to provide these same speeds is simply not available in more rural areas.
The interesting thing is that there has long been concern over a possible ‘double digital divide’ occurring in the UK, where rural areas neither have the infrastructure in place, nor the skills to properly utilise it if better services did become available. Rural migration caused by the pandemic may significantly alter this matter. It remains true, however, that while the competition between ISPs in urban areas has further increased over recent months – giving consumers greater choice – many rural areas continue to be critically underserviced.
The problem is rooted in a historical lack of investment into rural broadband. Rural residents have faced this battle for a long time, but even now as demand is increasing, there is still a distinct lack of supply. This is because fibre infrastructure is just too expensive an investment for ISPs to make for the return they would receive on the low number of customers.
However, there are technologies that can help lift rural areas onto a more equal footing with cities. Ofcom recently joined UKWISPA, and in doing so actively acknowledged Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technology as a mainstream broadband technology. FWA is a way in which rural communities struggling with poor broadband speeds can gain access to superfast and ultrafast speeds. What’s more, setting up an FWA network is relatively quick and easy and can provide residents and organisations with the speeds they need. In other words, FWA can provide a creative, competent solution to the rural broadband ‘problem’.
There are solutions if we look for them. As we progress slowly into the ‘new normal’ emerging out of a post-pandemic landscape, a shining light may be that digitalisation and flexible working trends will drive positive change. What was already apparent to some – the equal right to a decent broadband connection in a democratic society – will be recognised more widely and the appropriate steps will be taken to help address this imbalance.
About the author
Steven Leighton is CEO of Voneus.