A retrospective look at 2020’s impact on rural connectivity

If the events of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that technology plays a critical role in all our lives. From staying connected with loved ones to remote working, the level of connectivity that we have access to has underpinned our ability to live and work effectively. Put simply, reliable, high-speed internet has never been more of a priority. Steve Holford, chief commercial officer, Airband explores.

As a new year begins, it presents a natural period for reflection. There’s no doubt that 2020 has been a pivotal year for broadband, particularly in rural areas, but what are the specific trends that we’ve seen emerge?

Internet access and the digital divide

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for the mass migration of the British workforce from offices to homes. With seemingly endless Zoom meetings, email exchanges and live chats with colleagues, we have relied entirely on our home broadbands to be able to work effectively.

Not just this, but lockdowns and restrictions to social gatherings have meant that we are reliant on technology to keep connected with family and friends. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a level of broadband that allows them to enjoy these necessities. A recent survey by uSwitch, found that the UK’s digital divide has grown dramatically in the last year. As it stands today, the fastest street’s broadband is more than 5,000 times quicker than the slowest. In fact, the slowest broadband in England had speeds of a mere 0.12Mbps.

This isn’t fair. Many areas, predominantly in rural and hard-to-reach locations, are not being supplied with the level of internet access they need and deserve. As network providers tend to focus on developing infrastructure in densely populated regions, rural communities have not been able to receive the same level of access as households in urban areas.

Entertainment moved online

Not only have slow internet speeds impacted how we are able to work and communicate, but they have also affected leisure activities for modern households. As home technologies continue to innovate and digitise, high-quality broadband is becoming more important for consuming entertainment such as online TV and gaming services.

With platforms such as YouTube, people are able to stream free content online. In addition to this, many popular shows and movies are now available over the internet. Even before the pandemic, this was causing disruption, but as more people are confined to their homes, streaming services have become a necessity for most households.

Indeed, research by Ofcom showed that internet usage has spiked beyond anticipated predictions. Ofcom’s annual Online Nation report found that, in April 2020 during the height of lockdown, UK adults spent a daily average of four hours and two minutes online, with one in three now watching online videos more than traditional TV. This clear shift to online entertainment services has created an enormous demand for high-speed broadband.

As well as this, there has also been a recent move towards online-only devices. For example, Sony has just launched a digital-only version of its PS5, which does not have the option to play optical disc games. Similarly, Microsoft has a ‘download only’ Xbox. This marks a trend towards physical formats being ditched in favour of digital, much like we have seen with DVDs since the launch of video streaming services.

In order to acclimate to the fast-evolving technological world and embrace innovative forms of entertainment, all areas across the UK need high-speed, high-quality broadband.

Lack of economic growth in underserved areas

It is important to stress the impact that poor-quality, low-speed broadband has had on businesses and the rural economy. With traditional ways of working gradually being replaced by newer, more innovative methods that are underpinned by technology, slow broadband is fast becoming a barrier to economic growth in rural areas.

A recent survey by the National Farmers’ Union found that 90% of farmers believe broadband is essential for their business. Despite this, only 36% have ‘adequate’ internet speeds. For businesses in rural areas to realise their full economic potential, we must prioritise the deployment of high-quality broadband services.

The impact of urban to rural migration

Since the introduction of the national lockdown, the government has urged people to “work from home where you can” for much of 2020. The adoption of remote working has given people more flexibility and are therefore, not tied to urban areas.

According to Rightmove, in September, property searches saw an uplift in areas with populations under 11,000, with searches doubling in small towns, villages and civil parishes across the UK. This has caused a strain on existing sub-par broadband connections and exacerbated the digital divide.

With the population of rural areas growing steadily, and remote working showing no signs of going anywhere, there is an urgent need to invest in broadband infrastructure and meet the growing demand in these areas.

What can we expect from rural broadband moving forward?

As technology continues to be critical to day-to-day life, we must continue to prioritise the delivery of high-quality internet to rural communities. Only in doing so, will we close the digital divide and ensure equal access to opportunities for all, irrespective of location.