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'Digital divide' between rural and urban homes exposed

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: August 24, 2013

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The "digital divide" has been laid bare after figures revealed households in rural areas receive broadband three times slower than in the cities, according to government research.

Official figures have revealed while the average speeds to homes in "less sparse urban" areas is 14.8 megabits per second (mbps), it drops to just 4.4 mbps in a "sparse hamlet and isolated dwelling".

The gulf makes a huge difference to the what homes and businesses can do online.

Speeds of as little as 2mbps – what the Government is aiming to provide as a basic "universal" service – is enough to watch on-demand television services including the BBC's iPlayer, read web pages and make internet phone calls.

But so-called "super-fast" broadband – speeds of over 24 mbps as defined by ministers – means several computers could download a video simultaneously on a single line, giving businesses in particular a competitive advantage over rivals.

Broadband speed is a huge issue in rural areas such as Devon and Cornwall, and the Government has committed £1.2 billion of public money to get the quickest speeds possible throughout the country.

But it was criticised after scaling back its targets. Ministers wanted 90% of premises to have access to "super-fast" broadband by May 2015 and a "universal" service for others.

This summer, though, the Treasury said it wanted 95% of UK properties to have access to be on "superfast" broadband by the end of 2017, effectively shifting the goal until after the next general election.

Huge subsidies are funding the roll-out in the Westcountry, where local authorities and businesses leaders are prizing the technology to help attract new businesses, prevent young people from fleeing and allowing traditional, increasingly online-dependent industries such as farming to compete. The Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme – which has £30 million from the Treasury and £20 million from local authorities – has a 90% "super-fast" target for the end of 2016.

The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly £132 million broadband scheme is funded by EU subsidies, rather than the UK government, and is aiming for a higher percentage of premises – 95% – to be hooked up next year. Telecoms giant BT is the contractor of both contracts. According to telecoms watchdog Ofcom's latest figures, average broadband speed in Plymouth is 14.4mbps, Torbay 11.6mbps, Cornwall 10.3mbps, Devon 9.2mbps, and Somerset 8mbps.

The average, though, masks the fact thousands suffer from glacial speeds, with the percentage of premises getting less than 2mbps in double-digits across the five Westcountry local authority areas.

The Labour government's plan to get 2mbps speeds to every home and business by 2012 was ditched by the coalition Government.

The figures, in a report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, follow warnings that rural residents suffer as a result of where they live.

A committee of MPs warned last month that countryside communities face a "rural penalty", with higher house prices and council tax but less funding for local schools, and poor mobile phone coverage.

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  • Tavistock_SFB  |  September 13 2013, 3:56PM

    We must not forget that these services are regulated by the UK Government via Ofcom. If they had only allowed one company to roll-out fibre in each area and not duplicate effort until that was completed. The whole of the UK would have been completed. Any roll-out taking place for the last few years would have been one to introduce competition. A target of 2 Mbps minimum is more of one from the Third World getting their first connections.

  • chrisconder  |  September 13 2013, 7:58AM

    BT is a phone company. They are only helping the people on short phone lines go faster. The statistics get fudged, because a few on cabinets close by can go fast, and this covers up the fact that those on long line lengths may still be on dial up or very slow broadband, for which they pay the same price. This is a scandal, and a waste of public money. Until the government wake up to reality we are never going to have a digital britain. We need men of fibre. Moral and optic. We need to make sure funding goes to providers who will build the infrastructure of the future, not patch up an old phone network. Our problem is that we have one of the best phone networks in the world, but the monopoly who own it are trying to make it do things it wasn't intended to do, and to make it keep making money for its shareholders. One can't blame them, but it is wrong to use our money in this way when it isn't a futureproof solution and doesn't help the people it was intended to help. The rural areas are the lifeblood of the cities, and they need the veins and arteries to supply the cities. Copper can't do it any more.

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  • Tavistock_SFB  |  August 26 2013, 2:18PM

    The 95% pledge, promise, target call it what you want by this UK Government to deliver superfast by 2017 (over 4 years away) will not be met. The UK Government may as well be honest about this now - they have already failed and played with words over the last 5 years regarding superfast delivery. This applies particularly to England which has no dedicated government to get the job done.

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