A detailed academic study into internet access reveals the gap between urban and rural broadband speeds, which it says risks damaging business, adds to farming costs, and could be driving young people away from the areas in which they grew up.
The study, 'Two-Speed Britain: Rural Internet Use', is part of the Oxford Internet Surveys and was carried out by the Oxford Internet Institute with the dot.rural RCUK Digital Economy Research Hub at the University of Aberdeen. It shows more than one million people in Britain are excluded or face challenges in engaging in normal online activities because they live in remote rural areas not linked up with high-speed broadband. By looking separately at ‘deep rural’ (remote), ‘shallow rural’ (less remote) and urban internet users, researchers say they are able to highlight the true nature of this divide. They found that in urban areas just five per cent of those sampled had an average broadband speed below 6.3 Mbits/sec. However, in deep rural areas, over half (53 %) of people were unable to achieve this modest speed at which an album of 10 songs would typically take about one minute to download, 200 photographs a little over four minutes, and a movie about 18 minutes.
Principal investigator of the Oxford Internet Surveys, Dr Grant Blank, from the University of Oxford, said: 'This is the first time we have captured data to clearly show the depth of the divide between those living in remote rural parts of Britain and the rest of the country. The digital gap is not just due to age, income or education. We show that slower broadband speeds are barring many rural communities from engaging in the social or commercial online opportunities enjoyed by those in towns and cities.'
Professor John Farrington, of the University of Aberdeen and lead author of the report, said: ''This broadband speed gap between urban and especially deep rural areas is widening: it will begin to narrow as superfast reaches more rural areas but better-connected, mostly urban, areas will also increase speeds at a high rate. This means faster areas will probably continue to get faster and faster, with slow speed areas left lagging behind.'
The report shows the gap is most pronounced in upland areas of Scotland, Wales and England, but also in many areas in lowland rural Britain. It affects 1.3 million people in deep rural Britain, and 9.2 million people in less remote areas with poor internet connection (or ‘shallow’ rural areas).
Professor Farrington added: 'Rural businesses are penalised because they are unable to take advantage of the commercial efficiencies afforded by the internet, as in the creative industries; or have to resort to the use of paper systems which are more costly, as in the farming sector where there is a push to move administration, such as sheep registrations, online. These issues can potentially create a new tipping point for poorly connected rural areas. Effects could include losing businesses; adding to farming costs; making out-migration more likely for young people and in-migration less likely for retirees or the economically active.'