Britain's digital divide deepens

Broadband Britain is still a story of have and have-nots as as the rural population is being left out of the wired world.

That was the warning given today by Tim Johnson, chief analyst at Point Topic, speaking at the NextGen10 conference in Birmingham.

"Our analysis of the rural-urban digital divide doesn’t paint a rosy picture,” said Mr Johnson. Broadband speeds and costs are very sensitive to distance and population density he points out. "The higher speeds which people will expect and need in future will simply not be available in the countryside unless radical action is taken," he declared.

Point Topic has used its database of the broadband geography of the UK to calculate the percentage coverage of six different measures of broadband infrastructure , area by area. Rural areas are well behind urban ones on every one of them . The six indicators can be combined to provide a single Broadband Infrastructure Index (BII). The urban areas of Britain scored 67 per cent on this index as of mid-2010, the rural areas only 25 per cent.

As far as end-users are concerned, both residential and business, the perceived gap will only get wider over the next few years as demands and expectations for higher speeds grow steadily, doubling every two years according to many estimates. When 4Mbps becomes the minimum for good broadband as against 2Mbps today, the countryside will be even worse off because speed falls off so rapidly with longer distance.

Nor will there be much public money to bridge the gap in current circumstances. But Mr Johnson believes there is still a lot that both local communities and national government can do to bring lasting fit-for-purpose superfast broadband services to rural areas.

One thing which communities – from Government Regions down to villages - can do to get superfast broadband funded is to be very creative about the business plan Mr Johnson believes. He said: “Rural superfast broadband is going to bring huge benefits with it for many different parties. Local projects need to find ways of leveraging those benefits to finance the network, whether it’s by getting money off property developers or contributions for the environmental benefits."

But none of this can happen unless the government also takes a much more radical approach than it has shown so far. “There are too many questions left unanswered,” added Mr Johnson. “How can a small operator deploy a network when there is a real concern they’ll be gazumped by a BT or Virgin deployment as yet unannounced? How can small operators afford to pay extortionate rates on any fibre they do install and still make the numbers add up? How can the county councils or the local economic partnerships get any funding or sign any partners without adequate information?”

Quite.

A poll conducted by broadband comparison site broadband-expert revealed that just five per cent of Britons believe the UK will have the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015, as pledged by the current Government.