The government needs to be more ambitious with its plans to improve connectivity in rural areas or the UK agricultural industry will be left at a competitive disadvantage, according to the farming industry.
New research suggests the UK ranks behind many of its European neighbours and international trading partners in terms of digital connectivity.
An investigation by advisory service Cable.co.uk found the UK sits at number 31 in a world “league table” of broadband speeds – behind countries such as Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and the US.
The research found the average broadband speed in the UK was 16.51mbps – although a recent survey by the NFU found the situation is far worse than this in many rural areas.
The NFU’s survey concluded that 83% of farmers had an upload speed of 2mpbs or less and 56% had a similar download speed.
It also showed just 6% of farmers have access to superfast broadband and more than 80% have an unreliable mobile phone signal.
Suzanne Clear, the NFU’s senior adviser for planning and rural affairs, said the lack of decent broadband coverage or the inability to make mobile calls was creating a real barrier for farm businesses and risked putting them at a competitive disadvantage to producers in the rest of the world.
Farm businesses already able to make use of superfast broadband, 4G technology and cloud computing, where data is stored remotely and access over the internet, were seeing clear benefits, she said.
“Every farm sector appears to have options to increase productivity and reduce costs and make time savings with improved digital connectivity,” she said.
“If you talk to a farmer who has got superfast broadband they say they now couldn’t cope without it and it helps them to farm more efficiently.”
Ms Clear said the NFU was concerned the government was not doing enough to tackle the digital divide and this could be made worse with the fixed 10mbps broadband universal service obligation, which was far less ambitious than targets in other countries.
For example, in September 2016 the EU set out targets to achieve universal ultrafast broadband (more than 100mbps) coverage by 2025, she said.
“In contrast, the UK government Digital Economy Act’s target has a broadband universal service obligation of 10mbps for homes and businesses by 2020,” she said.
“British and Welsh farmers will be competing in an increasingly competitive world, where other farmers [in the EU and rest of world] will enjoy superfast (25mbps) and ultrafast coverage standards.”
The NFU will be launching its 2017 broadband and mobile survey on 21 August.
How can improved technology help farm businesses?
Frank Langrish, beef and sheep, East Sussex
Mr Langrish is using 4G connectivity to help with the electronic recording of his flock of 5,000 breeding ewes across multiple holdings.
A handheld device is used to scan each sheep’s ear tag and this information is then uploaded to the National Livestock Management Database using a broadband connection.
Mr Langrish then relies on his 4G connection to access the database and retrieve movement and other information about his livestock on a mobile device. The biggest benefits are it saves time and is more accurate.
Roger Jenkin, dairy, Cornwall
Mr Jenkin’s broadband was so poor in 2015 he was penalised for not being able to send completed cattle passports online.
However, by 2016 his fixed broadband connection and 4G connectivity has improved so significantly he was able to install and monitor robotic milking machines on the farm.
Information from the robots is stored on the home computer and is accessed from mobile devices using “Teamviewer” technology.
Being able to monitor the robots and access information remotely allows Mr Jenkin to make the most of his investment.