2020 has been a pivotal year for broadband. During an unprecedented time, says Red Peel, founder and managing director of Airband, where most of us were forced to stay in the confines of our own homes, we as a society have learned to adapt by taking advantage of modern technology.
However, while many were making do with streaming movies instead of visiting the cinema and seeing their families and colleagues over video conferencing services, for some living in rural communities with sub-standard broadband, this was not possible and left them at a disadvantage on many fronts.
As we turn the page and this new year begins, I am going to look back at 2020 to explore the effect that remote working has had on tech and broadband innovation with a particular focus on access to smart, connected technologies for rural businesses and consumers.
Remote working and business innovation
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how resilient workplaces have had to be in order to survive. With the national lockdown forcing 24% of the UK’s working population to work remotely, we have seen a huge increase in businesses upgrading their operations in response to the unexpected digital disruption experienced.
Across the piece, it has been imperative for businesses to implement accessible and safe methods of obtaining often sensitive data through the cloud and 5G. And this has been no different in rural industries as it has for those born out of cities. In today’s digital world, factors such as customer privacy, data ownership and the wider sharing of data can be as relevant to smart farming or auto repair as it is to hospitality and retail industries.
Broadband barrier to digitisation
It should go without saying that as rural businesses continue to innovate, broadband solutions need to keep pace. A survey conducted by the National Farmers’ Union at the end of 2019 showed 90% of farmers already believing that access to high-speed broadband was essential for their business. A further 26% reported that slow connectivity had been a barrier to further use of digital solutions.
For rural businesses, getting infrastructure such as FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises) broadband that will support digital transformation is key to adapting to today’s changing landscape. It will allow rural businesses to take advantage of technologies like 5G, the cloud and data management.
The fast evolving, smart consumer
Just as businesses have had to get better connected in 2020, so to have consumers; from staying connected with loved ones, to remote working and even the consumption of entertainment.
Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report revealed that during the height of lockdown in April 2020, UK adults spent a daily average of four hours and two minutes online, with many households across the country adopting smarter technology to adapt to the rise in internet use. Even before the pandemic, smart homes had seen a huge increase, with 57% of households having some sort of smart device to control appliances.
In turn, a survey conducted by the UK incumbent telco, BT has shown that in the lead up to this Christmas, 83% of Brits planned on gifting at least one digital device for their friends and families. As lockdowns continue into 2021, it has highlighted that consumers are adopting smarter shopping habits and have utilised e-commerce and e-services in the last year more than ever before.
The digital divide
With both rural businesses and consumers becoming increasingly connected, there is an urgent need to invest in broadband infrastructure to meet the growing demand in these areas.
2020 arguably proved the extent of the UK’s digital divide. A survey by uSwith late last year found that the fastest street’s broadband is more than 5,000 times quicker than the slowest with many rural and hard-to-reach locations not being supplied with the level of internet they need or deserve.
With this in mind, there has been a clear acknowledgement by the government to close this divide between urban and rural communities. Efforts to bridge the gap can be seen in the 2020 Spending Review which outlines that the government will be prioritising and allocating £1.2bn to subsidise the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband to the hardest-to-reach areas.
This commitment was illustrated in December when Airband, along with Truespeed and Wessex Internet, were awarded a contract by the Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) programme, backed by Government funding, to install full fibre broadband across Devon and Somerset to more than 56,000 rural homes and businesses over the next four years.
What can we expect from rural broadband in 2021?
At the time of penning this article uncertainty around 2021 remains on many fronts, but one thing that will not diminish is the need for rural communities to be better connected to smart technologies. As a company, we passionately believe that rural communities should have access to the same level of high-quality connectivity, and therefore opportunities, as those in urban areas.
The author is Red Peel, founder and managing director, Airband.