Rural businesses are being put at a competitive disadvantage by broadband speeds that are three times slower than that of nearby cities, analysis of Ofcom data has shown.
The analysis was carried out by business accountants Grant Thornton for the County Councils Network (CCN), which represents the 37 local authorities in England.
It revealed that more than two-thirds (72%) of England’s counties fell below the national average download speed of 45Mbps while 27% had average speeds below Ofcom’s definition of superfast 30Mbps.
In total, 169 areas in England have broadband speeds below the national average and more than 80% of those are in rural areas, CCN said.
Of the 79 areas in England, which fail to reach Ofcom’s definition of superfast, all but four are based in rural counties.
Regional and local breakdowns showed huge discrepancies in average speeds. The highest speed in England was 102.9Mbps in York, while the lowest average speed is 21.8Mbps in rural West Devon.
Further research showed that some rural areas had average download speeds more than three times slower than a city just a few miles away.
For example, while York averaged 102Mbps, rural Ryedale, which shares a boundary with the city, averages just 25.8Mbps.
And in the Derbyshire countryside, average speeds were 31.6Mbps – not much more than half those seen in Derby city at 59.3Mbps.
The results prompted county council leaders to warn the government that it was gifting city businesses with an advantage over their rural counterparts and competitors.
CCN said: “These latest figures show that a lack of investment in digital infrastructure in counties and a continuing focus towards cities in the government’s Industrial Strategy and post-Brexit policy could leave counties continually lagging behind urban areas.
“There is a real risk [rural areas] will not be able to attract the businesses of the future as England moves towards a greater prominence of financial, tech, and communications sectors.”
It argued that counties should have similar powers to drive forward local economic growth as city region metro-mayors, working as “strategic authorities” alongside Local Enterprise Partnerships, and should get a fairer share of infrastructure investment, which is currently skewed towards urban areas.
Philip Atkins, County Councils Network vice-chairman, and leader of Staffordshire County Council said: “The government’s commitment to provide superfast broadband to as many areas in England as possible has resulted in some significant steps forward in rural connectivity in the past few years.
“But these figures show that businesses in shire counties and rural areas are being left at a competitive disadvantage.
“It cannot be right that in some areas, businesses and residents in a city less than 10 miles down the road from a rural county benefit from average download speeds more than three times faster.
“While the government has announced investment in this area, we remain concerned that digital infrastructure in counties isn’t getting the attention it desperately needs.”