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Dorset Life investigates: Superfast rural broadband: a pipedream?

Joël Lacey on how rural residents are so badly served in terms of access to technology

For many people moving to Dorset, it is in pursuit of the rural idyll, a bit more room, lower population density, access to countryside and the coast…, or at least they are in the pursuit of something which isn’t living in London or its ever-expanding conurbation. They seek a slower pace of life in retirement, or perhaps a nicer place in which to bring up their children. The flip-side of the slower pace of life and the greater distance between homes and lower population density, however, is that services are less well provided. There may be no mains gas, or drainage, mobile phone coverage may be patchy, and 3G and 4G mobile signals nothing more than a thing to be read about; there will almost certainly be a much greater distance between their new home and their nearest telephone exchange, which means slower internet access In response to the proposition that people get better access to high-speed internet in cities and big towns than in the countryside, the technophobic response might well be ‘So what?’.

The answer to that question is that, whilst those of us used to dealing with people in writing or by phone may continue to do so for a while, government, business, education and even healthcare all appear inexorably to be moving to a ‘digital first’ strategy when dealing with the public. In other words, whilst it may still be possible to interact with the wider world without internet access, it may not always be possible to find out how to interact with it (for example, getting an address or phone number) without having access to the internet.

As television and (eventually) radio vanishes from the analogue airwaves, it may not, in deep valleys, be possible to receive radio or TV signals without their coming down a line into one’s home.

Fast-forward a few years, and it is not inconceivable that one will be unable to book a hospital appointment, buy an airline ticket, complete homework, access social services or even, perhaps, vote, without access to the internet… or at least only be able to do so at a glacial pace.

‘So what… Isn’t that the price you pay for living in the countryside?’ may be the response to that. Well, it certainly is, but it really shouldn’t be. Add in the additional expense of travel owing to the virtual non-existence of rural public transport, the fact that wages in Dorset have in no way matched the cost of housing and all of a sudden there is a real future risk that those living in rural communities will be very much second-class citizens, but still paying the same price, or an even higher price, for all their services as those who live in cities and larger town, but who do have fast internet access and excellent public transport.

‘If the problem is so important, surely the government is doing something about it,’ you might say. Yes and no. There was a widely heralded scheme in which bids were to be put in place for rural provision of ‘superfast’ broadband. As the various elements involved in terms of what was needed, how it was to be delivered and how much the bidding companies were to be paid for these services changed, so the number of bidders dropped to one: BT. In short, the company which had been in charge of not having delivered these services so far was put in charge of delivering them, with a little help from the county and district councils.

So what options are there for the individual rural consumer? Well one could opt for BT Infinity – the Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC) system, where fibre-optic cables which do permit very high speed transmission and receipt of data, then gets patched from the cabinet (the small green cabinets which have appeared in villages) to the home by the copper (or aluminium) wire telephone line. The only problem is, whilst the ‘estimated’ download speed given may be in the region of 40-70Mb/s (often 50 times what householder may currently be achieving on their ADSL Broadband lines), the actual speed after installation may be a fraction of that. If you live 1.2 miles from your nearest cabinet you will get in the region of 5 Mb/s, not 70 – in other words, rather less than the cheapest broadband option in a large town. So what are the alternatives?

Line of sight microwave systems may work for larger hamlets where there are enough people buying into a system to make it affordable, but it seems that physical rural isolation is only to be compounded by digital rural isolation, with only expensive, and not necessarily perfect, satellite broadband systems being one of few alternatives. With the company that is implementing the government’s rural broadband ‘strategy’, charging £500-£1500 for Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) installations that offer genuinely high-speed internet access, either the bill for rural broadband access will balloon, or isolated rural residents will simply be excised from taking part in the modern world. For some, that may be what they think that they want, but there is absolutely no doubt that we are moving into a world where poverty of internet access will only accentuate the all-too-real status of second-class citizenship of anyone living in the countryside.

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