Two new reports highlight the importance of fast broadband to our rural prosperity

By Charles Paxton

To put this whole article in proper context, let us begin with some interesting factual snippets about the Penrith and the Border area taken from a handy fact sheet put together with the help of ACTion with communities in Cumbria and distributed at our MP for Penrith and the Border, Rory Stewart’s September 18th Rheged Broadband Conference.

Half of our 86,277 population live in villages or hamlets, 97.5% live in areas classified as ‘rural’, three quarters of the population live in Eden District which has the sparsest population of any District in England and Wales. About 20% of our working population is self-employed, 18.3% work mainly from home, 15.9% of jobs are tourism related, 9.8% are in agriculture. 80% of our VAT registered businesses have fewer than five employees, 92% have less than ten. Just 1.7% of people are registered as unemployed. Over half of Eden’s people live more than 2.5 miles away from a GP, more than 4 miles from a bank, library or Secondary school and 11% of households don’t have a car or van.

72% of Eden’s communities (LSOAs) have been designated ‘red’ areas, the 5% of UK households considered least likely to receive very fast broadband provision by 2017.

The two new reports linked below, are helping to focus attention on rural broadband as an important potential stimulus to England’s rural economy, and as our countryside currently contributes about 20% to England’s overall economy, this subject can be seen as having considerable national significance.

These reports have strong relevance for our Penrith and the Border constituency of Cumbria, about 75% of which is encompassed in the very beautiful, but relatively sparsely populated Eden Valley district, an area selected as one of the four Big Society ‘Vanguard communities’ and an area of intense focus at the moment for Community Broadband pilot schemes.  There are two up and running already, one in the Alston area run by Cybermoor and another in the Village of Great Asby, run by Great Asby Broadband Group with the help of NextGenUs (Community Interest Companies both). There are, however many more new fledgling groups in various stages of establishment and coalescence – stimulated by Penrith and the Border MP, Rory Stewart’s  September 18 broadband conference and November 6th Broadband Champions’ meeting at Great Asby.  The word is out that fast broadband at Next Generation Access (NGA) speeds (generally considered to be over 50 Megabits per second symmetrical, i.e. upload and download) can help boost the competitiveness and market reach of rural businesses while enhancing the quality of life of our widely distributed population – a population that has been hitherto disadvantaged in various ways by the remoteness of rural living.

While the first report Rural Broadband, by Hilary Talbot of The Centre For Rural Economy focuses on the broadband gap between rural and urban areas, highlighting the fact that “87% of rural areas would be at high risk of not having NGA in 2012 compared with 22% of urban areas”, the second report by the Commission for Rural Communities makes a frank assessment of the comparative costs of urban and rural living, arguing that though a few things are cheaper in the countryside, on the whole life in the countryside tends to be between 10 and 20% more expensive than life in an urban setting and that costs generally increase in inverse proportion to the size of the settlement, with the relatively highest costs being incurred by families with multiple children who are living in the remote hamlets, it can cost them £72.20 more per week than the equivalent urban family. When you consider that rural incomes tend to be lower than urban equivalents you can understand the nature of the rural ‘squeeze’. Now add the spectre of public spending cuts – concentrated populations are easier and cheaper to serve.

While rural communities have ‘deep wealth’ in the form of clean air, sweet drinking water, space, closer connection with nature and seasonal change, peace and quiet, low crime rates, an absence of chavs, street gangs and low levels of juvenile delinquency,  close neighbourly and community relations etc., the disposable income does tend to be in shorter supply and distance to work, shops and services translates into higher cost in terms of time, effort and money. Urban living tends to be more convenient and cheaper, with more options, greater leverage from economies of scale and higher monetary returns.

What can fast broadband do to help rural communities? Simply put, its main virtue is the effective negation of distance in communications, the expansion of opportunities in studying and working from home, access to information and services, the expansion of options for marketing goods and services, for shopping for them, for entertainment, booking holidays and for socialising. Fast internet access brings the world to you and you to the world. It virtually concentrates our population, enabling greater efficiencies in many government, private and voluntary services with associated savings. A comprehensive list of benefits can be found at the website.

Having seen these benefits and in light of the above-mentioned rural ‘squeeze’, the broadband gap may now seem to have more serious implications than one might first suppose, and you can see why Eden’s broadband champions have drafted and are signing up to The Eden Declaration . There is a great deal at stake and it is well worth striving for, not just for the applications that most appeal to us, but for all the potential applications that will appeal to younger, older and future generations.

At this juncture I return to Talbot’s Rural Broadband report. The report sheds light on some of the complexities and explains why the universal service commitment of access to a minimum of 2 Mbps for all by 2012 is problematic, “Even understanding which areas are currently provided with less than 2 Mbps is difficult. The available national data from OFCOM obscures the position for more rural areas by showing the percentage of premises connected to a DSL-enabled exchange (with the potential of delivering a 2 Mbps service). Significantly for rural areas, premises at a distance from an exchange are unable to realise this potential.” This is because copper wires lose speed over distance and because heavy use ‘contended lines’ divide available bandwidth between the users at any given time. “So while OFCOM data for 2008 showed that 99.98% of UK households were connected to a DSL-enabled exchange, suggestive of no rural broadband shortfall, the Commission for Rural Communities in their 2009  report ‘Mind the Gap’ claimed that 42% of those in rural areas could not connect to a 2 Mbps service.”

Talbot describes the rural-urban broadband gap as “dynamic” and in need of ongoing interventions and commonly agreed definitions. The report looks into ways to encourage alternative suppliers and identifies community broadband projects as an area of potential expansion and explores the opening up of existing and expanding E-Government fibre networks. Importantly, the report culminates with nine specific suggestions about ways that ought to close this broadband gap. They are:

“• Visualise the gap as dynamic and in need of on-going interventions
• Define target speeds and quality that address future needs
• Develop accurate mapping of the quality of broadband provision
• Continue to encourage new suppliers
• Encourage and support community broadband initiatives
• Exploit government buying power when procuring e-government fibre networks
• Build in, and sell on whenever possible, spare capacity on e-government networks
• Develop effective organisational models and guidance over state aid permissions that enable
such activity
• Instigate a presumption of rural broadband gain across all government departments and tiers
of government. ”

I would urge all Eden residents to see CumbriaBroadband.Com and to read The Eden Declaration and if you are in agreement with it, to sign it also, because the more people who call for better service then the more likely we will be to get it. 100 mbps fibre to the home connection for most residents and fast wireless service for others might mean that the bandwidth on the remaining copper lines could be sufficient to allow the very remote residences a considerably higher speed than is currently available with our contended lines. It would be great if the rising tide could lift all boats – at least to the level of Universal Service Commitment of 2Mbps. We need to close the broadband gap. There are various ways that we can achieve this.

For those people in the ecclesiastical parishes of Crosby Ravensworth (Maulds Meaburn and Reagill), Morland (including Newby, Sleagill, Kings Meaburn), Great Strickland, Little Strickland (Thrimby), Cliburn and Bolton there is a dedicated website to help us communicate about fast broadband development at

For communities in the Upper Eden area there is