Farmers slam rural broadband as ‘stuck in the 1990s’

Monday, 21 August, 2017

Farmers have criticised ‘non-existent’ rural broadband services, as the National Farmers Union (NFU) calls on the government to make drastic improvements.

Patchy broadband and mobile coverage can seriously threaten rural business and despite attempts by broadband providers to bridge the gap, there remains a gaping divide between urban and rural areas.

An NFU report now urges the government to roll out universal superfast broadband and a reliable mobile phone network.

This includes extending nationwide infrastructure to the 5% of the country without decent broadband services.

Broadband for all – or just select few?

BT have proposed ‘universal broadband’, at speeds of up to 10Mbps, for 99% of UK premises by 2020.

The government’s proposed ‘Universal Service Obligation (USO), would give people in remote locations the right to demand broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps. Although this will not be implemented if BT’s pledge takes effect.

Not everyone has high hopes for the rollout. Niall Hartshorn, from Oaks Farm on the border between England and Wales, says BT services have come a cropper.

“BT once promised 2-4Mbps, but it reaches those speeds very rarely, and we suffer 1Mbps most of the time, and sometime as little as 0.5Mbps. One hour on, one hour off has become the norm. It gets slower the further we get from the [exchange].

“So many rural areas are still stuck in the 1990s, it’s a disgrace.”

Downloading on the rise and getting faster

The government has already pledged to make the UK the best connected country in the world, offering 24Mbps connections to 95% of the country by the end of 2018, followed by further expansion in 2020.

A 2016 study by Ofcom revealed that over 59% of the country is now connected to ultrafast fibre services, but that still leaves a large proportion of unlucky users, some of whom still lack basic access to broadband.

Average download speeds in the UK were 36.2Mbps as of April 2017 according to Ofcom, although this applies only to the largest ISPs – BT, TalkTalk, Sky, Virgin, Plusnet etc.

It’s a different story in the countryside, however, as rural regions saw average speeds of only 12.2Mbps. According to Ofcom’s figures, about 1.4 million households, usually in remote areas, do not get speeds above 10Mbps.

The NFU study suggests 58% of rural users reach download speeds of 2Mbps or less, but only 4% of farmers have access to superfast downloads.

Digital agriculture

Network connectivity and social media are increasingly important to running a successful agribusiness. Mobile devices, GPS and other technology can be used to maximise output in a number of ways.

Broadband and mobile communications give farmers access to real time information, marketing, buying/selling livestock, up to the minute weather forecasts and much more.

In addition, many farms now offer e-learning, webinars, and video conferencing in their training programmes, making it vital farms be connected to fast and reliable broadband.

Lewis Steer is the only remaining shepherd to farm Dartmoor’s native, rare breed sheep, producing lamb and sheepskins. Like many farmers, social media forms an important part of the job, enabling him to connect with customers and suppliers.

Unfortunately, patchy coverage can often get in the way. “Our Dartmoor broadband is nigh on non-existent,” he explains.

Farmers also need access to mobile data while working on heavy machinery, lack of signal can put their safety at risk.

Greener pastures

In some rural communities, disgruntled customers have taken matters into their own hands.

Fed up with 500Kbps download speed, a man from Powys, South Wales, took the unusual step of beaming his broadband down from space. Using a satellite, 22,000 miles above Africa, which provides a 28Mbps connection.

For the less astronomically-minded, there are a number of smaller independent ISPs in some parts of the country. Companies such as Gigaclear and SugarNet provide rural broadband,

Gigaclear, for example, offers ultrafast 1Gpbs fibre optic services, giving remote communities a way to connect without relying on the larger providers.

MAIN IMAGE: Muerig Raymond/NFU

Aran Burton author picture


Aran is a technology journalist with an interest in consumer issues.