Yesterday’s debate on the forthcoming Agriculture Bill 2019-21 saw the House of Lords being told, by non-affiliated life peer Lord Holmes of Richmond, that some of the farmers he knows have such poor access to internet connectivity that they “have to go to McDonald’s to get broadband coverage.“
The new bill isn’t actually supposed to cover broadband, although a number of Lords did support an attempt by Lord Clement-Jones (Liberal Democrat) and Lord Holmes of Richmond to introduce “Amendment 157,” which would have required broadband provision and digital literacy to be added as part of the section that deals with financial support for rural development.
Rural broadband connectivity, via both fixed line ISPs and mobile (4G, 5G etc.) services, has improved a lot over the past decade but there are still some areas where even getting a slow ADSL line can be a struggle. Similarly, Ofcom’s own 10Mbps broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) recognised that tens of thousands of homes and businesses may simply be too expensive to serve.
Naturally farmers, which often manage large swathes of deeply rural countryside, tend to be among those who are often the last on the list to benefit from improvements to digital connectivity. The situation is rarely ideal, particularly given the Government’s “Digital by Default” strategy, which requires farmers to do a lot more via an online-only mould than before.
Lord Holmes of Richmond said: “I am grateful to the NFU for its support of this amendment, and I draw noble Lords’ attention to the rural connectivity survey that the NFU has conducted since 2015. What this shows is quite alarming: over that time period, on almost any measure, there has been a minimal increase in connectivity. Perhaps more worryingly, in the latest figures from 2019, there has been a 2% increase in those who say they have no broadband connectivity whatever.
"Farmers have told me that they have to go to McDonald’s to get broadband coverage, and while its advertising proudly states that all of its produce comes from British and Irish farmers—which is a thoroughly good thing that gives some circularity to this position—this should be a choice rather than a must for farmers.
Similarly, when one considers tax being digital by default, when farmers have approached HMRC with the issue of not being able to get online, it has been suggested to them that they go to their local library to transact their tax calculations and submissions. While all noble Lords would agree that libraries are quiet and calm places, are they really the venue where one should be forced to set out one’s finances?”
Otherwise the debate touched on a number of all too familiar areas, such as the delays and costs caused to rural 4G and 5G mobile deployments by the Government’s decision to rip-out high-risk vendors like Huawei (roll-out delays of c.2 years are already expected). The questionable 2025 deployment target for the £5bn commitment to make “gigabit capable” broadband available to every UK home also cropped-up.
In response Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative) listed some of the things that the Government were doing to tackle rural broadband connectivity, such as the £5bn project mentioned above and the £200m Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme that is handing out broadband connectivity vouchers to remote homes and businesses. The 5G focused Rural Connected Communities (RCC) programme also got a mention.
However, the Lord added that broadband and mobile connectivity was “beyond the scope of the Bill” and more a matter for DCMS than Defra.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble said: “Returning to digital, although the current rural development programme allows for support for broadband and digital skills, wider government initiatives are the main funding mechanisms for broadband connectivity and digital skills. These are delivered through DCMS, rather than Defra.
"The role played by me, as Minister for Rural Affairs, and the rural team at Defra, is to work closely with DCMS and, at ministerial level, make sure that there is a complete understanding of the fact that rural communities need to play their part in a modern economy, and of the need to improve that.”
Source: ISP Review