The latest speeches and initiatives from the government would have us believe that nationwide, ultra-fast broadband is on the horizon. From Prime Minister Johnson’s pledge to roll out full fibre broadband for all by 2025 to the Chancellor’s announcement of a new National Infrastructure Strategy, which will no doubt include additional public funding, the dream of gigabit-capable, unfaltering connectivity is set to become a reality.
And it couldn’t come soon enough for the many rural schools up and down the country struggling with slow, unreliable broadband connectivity. Fast and reliable internet connectivity is a core part of our critical national infrastructure and as such should be available to every school, no matter their location.
A report by Ofcom in May 2019 revealed that a staggering 93 per cent of British properties still don’t have access to full fibre, gigabit-capable broadband, putting them on an unequal footing with the households, businesses and schools that have won the UK’s broadband postcode lottery. When the media reports on the best and worst locations for broadband speeds in the UK, it’s a given that rural areas will fare worse than urban areas, and the only surprising news will tend to be about which urban hotspots are lagging in the connectivity race. For rural schools, this status quo is contributing to a greater gulf between the education on offer to its pupils versus that available to larger schools in hyper-connected cities.
Half of England’s rural primary schools have closed since the early eighties, and even today, teachers continue to flag the ever-present funding challenge – from too few staff and classroom resources, to poor broadband connectivity. While those of us born before the age of computers in schools can argue that it ‘didn’t do us any harm’ and ‘here we all are working with IoT and AI and VR’ today, limited access to online resources in schools puts children in these rural communities at a disadvantage before they even set out on the road towards employment.
Students have a greater learning potential with access to online exam revision aids such as GCSE Bitesize, or being part of international video conference calls to help learn new languages, and even participating in coding sessions during weekly ICT lessons. Most primary classrooms will also have interactive smart boards installed, but with inconsistent internet access, many teachers simply avoid using them to avoid the disruption of connectivity outages.
Making a start
And let’s not forget about the staff. From planning lessons, to using online materials to help children of all abilities, teachers depend on secure, fast and reliable broadband in the classroom. Teachers also spend a lot of time working remotely, outside of teaching hours, but then struggle to access cloud-based drives when they need to access content back at school.
From an administrative perspective too, the best and often most affordable accounting, budgeting and financial management systems are delivered via the internet. This gift of reliable full-fibre broadband can help schools to deploy more agile and frequently cheaper SaaS tools rather than live and work with obsolete systems designed for previous generations.
The government has at least made a start. In the 2018 Autumn budget, the then Chancellor Philip Hammond pledged £200 million from the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) for the deployment of full fibre broadband networks in some rural locations, starting with primary schools. But it is a drop in the ocean.
We’ve spoken at length with headteachers in the southwest of England and the consensus is that increased access to online materials and resources would act as a lifeline for many rural community schools, helping compensate for funding cuts without impacting upon the quality of education provided. As curriculums turn more towards technology-enabled education, the need for secure, reliable and future-proof broadband is essential in providing a solid learning platform for children in school today.
Smaller, rural schools may not have dedicated IT managers overseeing the network and the countless applications installed, and may outsource IT support to a locally based, third-party company. But many will rely on a much-appreciated member of the teaching team will be doing their best to update software and manage online security, all on ropey connections and at sluggish speeds.
Reliable and stable broadband is a lifeline
The UK has an embarrassing digital disparity between urban areas where businesses and ‘super-jumbo’ schools prosper, and rural locations that are in the digital slow lane because it’s more difficult to deploy full fibre.
Delivering full-fibre networks to rural communities requires financial investment and a commitment to undertake the necessary work to deliver on these pledges. Unfortunately, the large broadband providers have tended to look the other way - ignoring rural communities and using taxpayers’ money to deploy full fibre in towns and cities instead.
On the plus side, though, some privately funded firms are going great guns and building gigabit-capable broadband networks in harder to reach areas. Often rooted in their local communities, they are local forces for positive change.
One initiative gaining traction in the southwest is to provide primary and secondary schools in communities passed by full fibre networks with free broadband for life. This free-of-charge service enables schools to reallocate the money that they would otherwise have spent on broadband to fund other digital initiatives or simply to buy new books.
For those who live and work in rural Britain, reliable and stable broadband is a lifeline. From consistent access in schools, to ultrafast connectivity across local businesses, having the core tools to compete on the global stage, alongside national peers and competitors is no longer a nice-to-have. Demands on the national infrastructure in urban areas are promptly met and no longer can rural requirements go unnoticed. The government’s recent broadband assurances are the first step on a long journey towards future-proof broadband for all.
Evan Wienburg, co-founder and CEO, TrueSpeed