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human

touch

rural broadband

Bringing broadband to remote rural

communities may be a priority for

big business and government bodies,

but what about those on the ground

What difference does it make to the

UK’s rural community

Welcome to broadband country

Bob Oakes has been

an artist blacksmith for 25 years.

His Cold Hanworth Forge and

Blacksmithing School in Lincolnshire

produces everything from domestic

ironwork to sculptures, as well as

specialist conservation work.

For rural businesses, success

in the contemporary countryside

means exploring new opportunities

and Oakes has several irons in the

fire, literally and metaphorically. As

well as traditional blacksmithing,

training is an increasingly important

part of the mix and the forge now

runs recreational and vocational

blacksmithing courses. The next

step is to branch out into the

corporate “away-day” market, with

the smouldering forge providing a

dramatic focus for management

team-building courses.

To prosper, today’s rural

businesses have to forge links not

only locally but also worldwide.

High-speed broadband is at the heart

of Oakes’ profile-raising strategy and

the Web provides the Cold Hanworth

Forge with a global shop window.

Through the broadband initiative

“onlincolnshire” Atkins has delivered

information communications

technology (ICT) advice to nearly

500 SMEs such as this in the county.

The Lincolnshire Broadband Initiative,

backed by funding from the county

council and the European Regional

Development Fund, saw the roll-out

of symmetrical broadband – which

allows users to send and receive

large volumes of data quickly.

“Broadband has made a

tremendous difference,” says Oakes.

“The whole of the teaching side

of the business depends on the

website – people can find us easily

and book online, from all over the

world. We’ve had students from

New Zealand, America, Nigeria, the

Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland

and France. And now I can upload

presentations to our website quickly,

something that would have taken

hours to do before broadband.”

Wired for life

Nobody disputes the importance of

broadband for the rural economy.

The government’s rural affairs

department, Defra, stresses that

stimulating broadband and access

to digital services is one of its top

priorities. Local and regional initiatives

with the Regional Development

Agencies in England and the

devolved administrations in Northern

Ireland, Scotland and Wales are

spearheading the promotion of

broadband on the ground.

“New technologies can help to

counter the effects of peripherality

and create new job opportunities,”

says Ieuan Wyn Jones, Deputy

First Minister and Minister for the

Economy and Transport in the

National Assembly for Wales.

“One of the main challenges

faced by infrastructure providers

relates to geography, distance

and remoteness.

“New communications

technologies clearly have the

potential to overcome some of

these constraints. The Welsh

Assembly Government’s Rural

Development Plan includes activities

to ensure the development

and proliferation of ICT in rural

communities and businesses.”

Rather than basking in the white

heat of a technological revolution,

however, there are plenty of rural

communities and businesses in Britain


“To an extent, we have to sit and watch as the rural areas fall behind

[BEFORE] we can make the case to put public money in. We’re waiting to

sort out a problem that we believe will arise in the future” Stuart Robertson, HIE

huddling around the dying embers

of outmoded dial-up connections.

Part of the challenge for

broadband providers comes right

down to the wire. ADSL broadband,

for example, is delivered using

conventional copper-pair telephone

lines, but exchanges must be

adapted first. Signal quality

decreases with distance, so

subscribers must live relatively near

the exchange – not a problem in

urban areas, but making the case for

investment in sparsely populated

rural districts is not so easy.

“Analogue dial-up costs are

going up and users are often

getting a poor service,” says Stuart

Robertson, head of Transport and

Communications for Scotland’s

Highlands and Islands Enterprise

(HIE). “Often, the people who

can’t get broadband also get very

slow dial-up speeds. For people at

the edges, it’s a triple whammy:

no broadband, unreliable dial-up

performance and an increasing

cost of dial-up.”

The Connected Communities

project, funded by HIE and other

public bodies, and matched by the

European Regional Development

Fund, attempts to level the playing

field. As part of the project, Atkins

designed a wireless network to

provide broadband to residents,

businesses, schools and hospitals

in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

ADSL is by no means the only

way to deliver broadband – cable,

wireless, 3G and satellite all offer

high bandwidth – but each has its

own advantages and disadvantages.

And then there’s the question of

equipment costs: somebody has to

pay for the infrastructure.

“Privatisation of the telecoms

industry means it’s principally driven

by competition bringing benefit,”

says Robertson, who is based in

Inverness. “High-population areas

get new services ahead of others.

These services are often seen as

very important for remote areas

and small businesses, of which we

have a lot. But we don’t get them

until some years after urban centres,

which to some extent may not rely

on these services as much.”

For the public in rural areas, lowspeed

dial-up internet means slower

downloads, plus limited or no

access to services – including

government services.

For rural businesses trying to

maintain a competitive edge, the lack

of broadband is potentially disastrous:

the challenges of physical isolation

are compounded by isolation from

the electronic mainstream.

Grassroot investment

Spending public money on rural

broadband – either in the form of

direct subsidies to provide broadband

in so-called geographical “blackspots”

or through funds to promote greater

public awareness – requires political

justification and that, in turn, means

being able to measure and make

projections about future benefits.

Launched by the Welsh

Assembly Government in 2002,

the Broadband Wales Programme

was set up to promote demand

and improve broadband supply. In

order to measure the success of

the programme – and to estimate

the long-term benefits to the

economy as a whole – Atkins

pioneered a new methodology that

quantifies not only the high-level

benefits of broadband, but also the

benefits directly attributable to the

Broadband Wales initiative itself.

“The process we developed uses

economics tools and looks at the value

derived over and above what you

actually pay – the phrase economists

use is ‘consumer surplus’,” explains

Martin Siner, an economist with

Atkins. Calculating bottom-line

benefits also meant analysing causal

chains – the knock-on effects of

positive changes brought about

through faster communications.

“Broadband enables teleworking,

teleworking reduces commuting time,

reduced commuting time means

reduced use of cars, which means

reduced congestion and reduced

carbon emissions. You can put a

pound sign on those things.”

Getting connected

The struggle to secure broadband is

the latest in a succession of battles

fought by rural communities to

secure infrastructure that cities take

for granted. These battles are not

new: a large number of rural areas

in Britain had to wait until the end of

WWII before they enjoyed electricity

and water from the mains.

Today, mains gas and drainage

are still not available in some rural

areas, but the lack of broadband

provokes a unique sense of

indignation, and does so in a way

that continued reliance on septic

tanks and bottled gas simply does

not. Could more be done to speed

up the roll-out of rural broadband

“It is easier to make the case for

using public money when the lag

has developed rather than before.

To an extent, we have to sit and

watch as rural areas fall behind

and wait for the moment when

we can make the case to put

public money in,” says Robertson.

“We’re effectively waiting to sort out

a problem that we believe will arise

at some time in the future.”

Certain developments are

exacerbating the digital divide and

one of them is the growing disparity

between rural and urban internet

connection speeds. When dial-up

was the only option, the playing

field was relatively level. But with

broadband up to 40 times faster,

this is no longer the case. At the

same time, the rapid adoption of

high-speed internet means that

most Web content providers – from

online retailers to service providers

– are optimising their content for

broadband. The gap between the

broadband haves and the dial-up

have-nots has never been greater.

“If the UK wants a policy where

everybody gets access to a certain

level of broadband service, we

should acknowledge that there are

some areas where the commercial

sector has no incentive to go in early

– and may never want to go to,”

says Robertson. “It means putting

public money in at the beginning

of the roll-out rather than the end.

If you can’t intervene until the end,

the really remote areas will always

suffer.” They, just like Oakes, are

often the very ones who can benefit

from broadband the most.


“Broadband has made

a tremendous difference.

people can find us easily and

book online, from all over

the world. We’ve had

students from New Zealand,

America, Nigeria, the

Netherlands, Norway,

Switzerland and France”

Bob Oakes

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