Rural broadband plans attacked as inadequate

Rural broadband and mobile phone coverage is not improving fast enough, according to the latest results from an NFU survey.

The union surveyed 500 people across the country this summer as part of its second annual survey in a bid to inform its work on getting an efficient service rolled out in rural areas.

Suzanne Clear, the NFU’s senior adviser for planning and rural affairs, said the union was still “crunching the numbers”. The full results will be released later this month.

See also: Farm leaders blast ‘flawed’ digital bill

However, Ms Clear said early signs were that rural broadband provision and mobile phone coverage had not improved much since the first survey in 2015.

“Nothing suggests that figures have gone up or changed a great deal,” she told Farmers Weekly.

“From our members’ point of view, the fact that 500 were happy to talk and were so quick to come back to us suggests they are still aggrieved.

“The results suggest that the broadband issue is widespread. It can affect farmers just as much on the edge of a settlement as it can in more isolated areas.”

The NFU’s Farm Broadband and Mobile Networks report, launched in London in May, showed just 4% of farmers have access to superfast broadband. And 70% have no access to 4G mobile phone coverage.

Digital dark ages

The government has committed to roll out superfast broadband to 95% of premises by 2017. But the “forgotten 5%” – which includes thousands of farms in remote locations – face being left in the digital dark ages with no access to broadband.

According to reports, BT has told MPs it would like to become the universal service provider for broadband to provide a 10Mbps service to every premises in the UK by 2020.

However, rival broadband providers, such as Talk Talk, Three and Vodafone, believe this would be unfair and lead to a monopoly.

“It’s not something the NFU has got a view on,” said Ms Clear. “We don’t take a view on how the regulator (Ofcom) manages to achieve it.

“Our main concern is getting a competitive broadband and mobile phone coverage service in place for our members.”

EU targets 100Mbps for all

The government is proposing introducing a universal service obligation (USO) which will see all households given the legal right to request a broadband connection capable of delivering a minimum speed of 10Mbps.

But Ms Clear said the NFU was concerned the proposed target USO speed of 10Mbps was not ambitious enough to cope with the range of agri-technology farmers will need to harness online in the coming years.

“The EU has set a new target for ‘all European households’ to get a minimum internet download speed of 100Mbps-plus by 2025, with businesses and the public sector being told to expect 1Gbps-plus,” she explained.

“Our farmers are still getting a poor broadband deal. We need broadband that keeps farm businesses competitive.”

In her closing speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham last week, prime minister Theresa May highlighted the ongoing problem of poor rural broadband services.

She said: “It’s just not right, for example, that half of people living in rural areas, and so many small businesses, can’t get a decent broadband connection.”

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