Rural communities are still suffering from ‘ridiculously slow’ broadband speeds and poor to non-existent mobile coverage, which must be addressed as a matter of urgency, MPs have said.
The Rural Communities report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRAC) focused on numerous issues in UK rural areas, and broadband and mobile services were key elements.
For example, on the provision of broadband, the report said the government must ensure that everyone can access services, rather than focusing on speeding up services for those who already have access to them.
Committee chair Anne McIntosh said: “Broadband has become a basic utility yet thousands of people in rural communities have ridiculously slow speeds or no connection at all."
The report noted that the government does have plans in place to address this, with a £20m fund run out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) but these need to be given more focus in order to progress with more benefits.
“Businesses, schools and households in rural areas have fallen behind urban areas when it comes to broadband access. Through the Rural Broadband Programme the government is taking steps to improve rural communities' access to broadband,” the report said.
“The focus of the Programme must be on improving access to those communities with no or slow broadband rather than increasing the speed for those who already enjoy an adequate service.”
The report also urged the government to force BT to show where it will be rolling out its network in rural areas in order to allow smaller firms to provide alternative solutions in the remotest parts of the UK.
“To expedite the rollout of superfast broadband the government must publish details showing precisely what areas will be covered by BT under the Rural Broadband Programme in order to allow alternative providers to fill in the gaps."
The calls echo those made more recently in a heated debate with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in which BT was accused of stifling smaller firms from helping in rural rollouts by refusing to divulge information on its network rollout plans.
With regards to mobile access, the report said it was ‘unacceptable’ that so many areas of the UK still have no mobile coverage. The committee acknowledged that the government has set up a £150m fund to tackle this, but said more needs to be done.
“We are concerned that in focusing on reducing the number of premises in 'not-spots', which may already have landline access, large parts of the countryside and those who work in it may still be left without access to mobile technology,” it said.
“The government must set out what improvement in geographical coverage the government foresees as a result of the £150m initiative.”
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said it was already hard at work to deliver rural coverage, claiming 100,000 more homes and businesses are getting access to superfast broadband each week.
"An extra £250m of investment means we will reach 95 percent of premises by 2017 and we are now exploring with industry how to expand coverage further, using more innovative fixed, wireless and mobile broadband solutions, to reach at least 99 percent of premises by 2018," it added.
Defra said it was doing all it could to boost the availability of good internet connections in rural areas. “We want our rural communities to be great places to live and work, which is why we’re investing in rural broadband, mobile coverage and providing funding to develop and grow rural businesses,” a spokesperson said.
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