CLA column: Putting communication for the countryside on agenda

The Digital Divide group at Westminster: Richard Dix (Rural Broadband), Steve Temple (InTouch System

The Digital Divide group at Westminster: Richard Dix (Rural Broadband), Steve Temple (InTouch Systems), Iain Dunnett (New Anglia LEP), Lindsey Mack (independent telecoms consultant), Ann Steward (PPC North Norfolk), Chloe Smith MP, George Freeman MP, Clarke Willis (Anglia Farmers), Martin Collison (Collison Associates), Nicola Currie (CLA), Rob Wise (NFU). - Credit: Archant

The CLA has campaigned hard for over a decade for rural areas to have not just effective and affordable broadband, but access to reliable mobile phone coverage. In that time, the association has been instrumental in placing the issue of establishing effective communication for the countryside firmly on the political agenda, writes CLA Eastern Regional Director Nicola Currie.

Yet here we are in the last weeks of 2014 with broadband and mobile signal problems still a major problem for many in Suffolk and Essex, the eastern region, and the country as a whole – which is frustrating and rather depressing in equal measure. While the issue of connectivity for all has never really shifted too far from centre stage in the eastern region, this week’s announcement by the Government that it is holding a consultation on the matter has put it firmly in the spotlight once again.

Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said he was determined to sort out the issue of mobile ‘not spots’, localised patches of poor coverage have left a fifth of people in the UK not just unable to access the internet via their phones but to even make calls or send texts.

His proposals for consultation look to ensure that everyone can access a 2G signal – a step in the right direction, but certainly not ideal considering most urban areas are enjoying 3G or 4G usage.

The Government, however, should be lauded for striving to get real solutions from mobile phone operators, as this a real problem that needs desperate attention.

The current mobile phone infrastructure is simply accentuating the rural-urban digital divide and it is down to Government and the mobile industry to reduce and, ultimately, resolve this disparity.

Plans need to be in place for everyone in the UK, not just in urban areas, to be able to receive the best possible mobile signal available and a quality broadband connection that is both stable and reliable.

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I was part of a delegation of business leaders and community and countryside representatives from across East Anglia that met Ed Vaizey, Minister for the Digital Economy, in Westminster on 22 September to discuss connectivity in rural areas.

The Digital Divide group superbly outlined the economic and social case for a pilot project to improve broadband through satellite and wireless technologies; this would then allow for a 3G mobile signal to be generated through Open Sure Signal devices.

The Government has issued a number of its own proposals to improve the current situation, and has given the industry, businesses and the public until November 26 to respond with thoughts and opinions.

One of the ideas put forward is to allow customers to ‘roam’ from one network to another within the UK, however a BBC report said this had been described as bad for the consumer by operators and a potential problem for national security by the Home Office.

What we really need is flesh on the bones of these plans – can we make a national roaming plan work? If so, when can it happen?

We know one of our members provides credit and debit card payment machines to rural businesses that offer roaming technology with little or no problems – so why can’t it be rolled-out to mobile phone users across the country?

Businesses in rural ‘not spots’ need solutions as a matter of urgency and to be able to work a reliable time table so that they can make informed investment decisions.

One thing is for sure, we cannot wait another decade for this issue to be resolved – the future prosperity of the countryside depends on a swift resolution to a problem that leaves it disadvantaged when compared to urban areas.