Narrowing the Digital Divide

The Federation for Small Businesses  (FSB) have today published their report The Missing Links – Revitalising our Rural Economy (pdf)

Their forward states “The rural economy is dominated by small businesses. Across Britain small firms make up 99.3 per cent of all businesses, contribute 51 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employ 58 per cent of the private sector workforce.

The Government believes, and the Federation of Small Business (FSB) is in full agreement, that it is these small businesses in rural areas that will provide the engine for economic growth.”

“ ….rural entrepreneurs need to be further encouraged and the barriers blocking their future growth removed. This paper sets out a comprehensive approach to restore and sustain the vitality of our rural economy ….”

“There is no panacea to unlocking the power of the rural economy. It requires a concerted, shared effort from national and local government and local communities. However, if implemented in full and in a co-ordinated way, the range of policy measures covered in this report will help improve the conditions in which our rural businesses can survive and thrive and create jobs.

Specifically, it requires high speed broadband to be rolled out to all rural areas ….”

We thought it appropriate  to quote them at length as their points are well made. Clearly they have many other recommendations, on in particular, but not restricted to, transport and planning measures, but we will limit ourselves to their discussion of the rural “digital infrastructure”.

Their recommendations are:

  • Broadband – The FSB calls for the delivery of high speed broadband (20Mbps) to 98 per cent of rural communities and businesses by 2015.
  • Mobile provision – Government should urgently proceed with the spectrum auction to allow small rural businesses to benefit from a full range of 4G services.

Their research shows that both urban (84% ) and rural (85%)  businesses expect their reliance on the internet to increase, fueled no doubt to an extent by the Governments “digital by default” policy, following Martha Lane Fox’s report, whereby most mandatory communication with Government Departments agencies etc must be carried out online.

The FSB have ascertained though that a significant proportion of small rural businesses 34% are dissatisfied with their internet reliability and 24% believe they don’t get value for money from their internet services provider (ISP). As far as speed is concerned over 63% of rural small firms are dissatisfied v’s less than half (48%) of urban firms. This digital divide must be narrowed/eliminated in their view which we wholeheartedly endorse.

They mention that this divide could widen with the Governments super connected cities programme which was extended in the 2012 Budget to a further 10 cities over the original 10

To help achieve their broadband recommendation they believe that “Internet Service Providers should prioritise areas for network expansion by not just the number of households, but by the number of businesses weighted to reflect the economic potential of those businesses to the national economy”.

It certainly strikes us that if the Governments three main priorities are growth, growth, and growth then the digital infrastructure is a key area where investment and pump priming should be a priority in conjunction with the private sector and involving the encouragement and support of projects  such as  B4RN on the rural front.

The divide does need to be narrowed and we fully support the FSB’s recommendation.

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