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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 May, 2003, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Digital divide 'hits rural business'
BBC environment correspondent Tim Hirsch
By Tim Hirsch
BBC environment correspondent

A widening "digital divide" between town and country is holding back the UK's rural businesses, a watchdog is warning.

The Countryside Agency is calling for many more rural areas to be given access to high-speed computer connections.

Farm - (Photo: Freefoto.com)
Farms need access to new technology

The agency's latest survey indicates while 95% of urban households have access to affordable broadband internet services, only 7% of rural villages are connected. In remote rural areas, this figure is just 1%.

Without the opportunity of a fixed broadband connection such as ADSL or modems via cable TV, the only option for many rural businesses is a costly satellite link.

Agency chairman Sir Ewen Cameron believes this presents an expensive obstacle to new rural businesses, including farm businesses that need access to new technology and markets.

"This is one reason why rural businesses seem a little less optimistic than their urban counterparts," he said in a foreword to the report.

Essential services

Sir Ewen said the new figures showed a widening digital divide.

"Our countryside is a hive of economic activity that plays a major part in driving the national economy, but our report shows that restricted access to broadband is putting rural businesses and residents at a disadvantage," he said.

Without adequate investment in affordable housing, the government will not have committed itself fully to rural communities
Sir Ewen Cameron
Countryside Agency

"Lack of broadband access can present an expensive obstacle to new rural businesses, denying them market for their products and services.

"New technologies, such as broadband, also offer residents access to essential services that no longer have a physical presence locally."

He said young people living in remoter areas needed the same access to the latest entertainment, education and training, delivered through broadband, if they were not to feel disadvantaged compared with their urban counterparts.

The report also complains of no improvement in the past year in the provision of affordable housing in the countryside.

Rural house prices have increased more quickly than those in urban areas, and local people continue to be priced out of their own communities.

Postal decline

Sir Ewen told BBC News Online: "This still remains a blot on the government's rural copy-book.

Richard Bridge, Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Company
We seem to be penalised for working in the country
Richard Bridge, Wentworth Wooden Jigsaw Company

"I think affordable rural housing is crucially important, so that people can continue to live in their communities, near to their friends and relatives -- and to their jobs.

"Without adequate investment in affordable housing, the government will not have committed itself fully to rural communities. I remain concerned, and I continue to badger them."

The report presents a mixed picture on other services in rural areas. It says the decline of village schools, a major concern in the 1980s and 90s, seems to have stabilised, and there has been an increase in the provision of cashpoint facilities.

However, the closure of rural post offices continues - albeit at a slower rate than in earlier years. The agency is hopeful that extra government spending to prevent such closures will start to bear fruit.

Has your business been hindered by a lack of access to high speed computer connections? How should the government tackle the digital divide between town and country?

Your comments:

We are being slowly strangled
Tim James-Parker, Suffolk, UK

We run a tool sales website which sees around 12,000 unique visitors a week, but have to run our five station network on a single 64Kbps connection from our rural Suffolk location. I doubt if we will see broadband for another two years! We are being slowly strangled.
Tim James-Parker, Suffolk, UK

You would think being less than seven miles from London's third airport we would have decent internet access. However like most of the villages in the area we have do not have broadband and consequently compete on an uneven playing field. Nationalise BT and make it supply a national service not run for the profit for the few who have shares.
Mark Strutt, Essex, UK

It is a fact that small and medium sized enterprises in areas without broadband are disadvantaged when it comes to e-commerce, e-mail and the like, but this is no different to other disadvantages such as access to the road networks, a skilled workforce etc. There are trade-offs such as better grant aid, lower business taxes, rent, staff costs and so on. If you are out of broadband range then the alternatives are not only slower but massively overpriced. It is ridiculous that it costs significantly more for an ISDN (128k connection) than it does for a broadband connection (500k+). If BT could be forced to give parity on pricing, then that would help.
Adam, Wales

I live in Somerset, where broadband is very thin on the ground. I work for a multimedia company in a village, between Taunton and Yeovil, both of which have broadband. BT has constantly said there isn't enough demand for it, when the truth is most people don't know what it is or how to register on their site. If it were available, a lot of home users would take it up, as long as they are aware of it. It would also be nice to see the government and BT investing in other types of broadband, not just cables, such as radio.
Rich, England

The government should be using objective one money to enable every exchange in the country to access ADSL.
Niamh Holding, Wales

BT urges action on rural broadband
06 May 03  |  Technology
Cable broadband hits one million
01 May 03  |  Technology
BT backs broadband campaigners
16 Apr 03  |  Technology
Islanders get connected
28 Mar 03  |  Wales
Broadband access leaps ahead
19 Mar 03  |  Technology

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