An Update on Rural Connectivity Contents


1.In its 2017 Digital Strategy, the Government acknowledged that “broadband and mobile must be treated as the fourth utility, with everyone benefitting from improved connectivity”.1 In 2018, the National Infrastructure Commission, the Government’s independent advisor on the UK’s infrastructure needs, stated that digital connectivity was now “an essential utility, as central to the UK’s society and economy as electricity or water supply”.2 Poor digital connectivity in rural areas therefore has far reaching consequences for communities, economies and businesses, with it being argued by some as one of the biggest challenges facing the rural economy.3

2.In the 2014–2015 session, our predecessor Committee conducted a short inquiry into Rural broadband and digital-only services. It expressed concern over a premature move to digital-by-default public services, based on an assumption that adequate broadband coverage existed across rural areas. It concluded:

There is a risk of poor rural broadband availability causing harm to farm businesses and the rural economy. It is essential that those who are ‘hardest-to-reach’ are given priority.4

3.We decided to follow up on our predecessor Committee’s previous inquiry in light of ongoing concerns from rural stakeholders about reliable broadband and the continuing push to move the delivery of public services online. This Report also goes beyond our predecessor’s Report to address wider issues associated with rural connectivity, including coverage of mobile data services in rural areas. We have been concerned that since the last EFRA Committee inquiry, the digital divide between urban and rural areas has not been sufficiently reduced, and that, with new technological offerings such as full-fibre broadband connection and fifth generation mobile data technologies (5G), the divide may widen in the near future. Chapter 2 therefore provides an update on broadband and mobile coverage across the UK and identifies the current state of the “urban-rural digital divide”. Chapter 3 looks at the impact poor connectivity in rural areas has had on public service provision. Chapters 4 and 5 examine and assess Government policy towards the roll-out of broadband services (decent, superfast and full-fibre) and mobile services respectively.

4.Over two evidence sessions, the Committee heard from the Country and Land Business Association (CLA), the Rural Services Network (RSN), Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE), Openreach, the Independent Networks Co-operative Association (INCA), Mobile UK, Ofcom and Ministers from DCMS and DEFRA. We received 52 pieces of written evidence. The written submissions and transcripts of the oral evidence sessions are published on our website. We thank everyone who contributed to this inquiry. We concluded taking oral evidence prior to the change in Prime Minister in July 2019. As far as possible we have sought to reflect subsequent changes in Government policy in this report.

1 Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Connectivity - building world-class digital infrastructure for the UK, March 2017

2 National Infrastructure Commission, National Infrastructure Assessment (July 2018), p 20

3 See House of Lords, Report of the Select Committee on the Rural Economy, Session 2017–19, HL Paper 330, para 239. A 2018 survey by the Countryside Alliance showed that digital infrastructure and provision of services were ranked as the two most important issues in relation to the rural economy, see House of Lords, Written evidence volume: Time for a strategy for the rural economy (April 2019), p .340, para 4

4 Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2014–15, Rural broadband and digital only services, HC 834, para 7

Published: 18 September 2019