A study by the University of Aberdeen is calling for urgent action to connect people in rural areas with superfast broadband.
Academics studied postcode data from Ofcom which showed large swathes of the countryside struggle with shoddy average speeds less than 2.2Mbps.
In these broadband ‘black holes’ it would take around an hour and a half to download 1GB of data.
The paper was published in the Journal of Rural Studies.
Researchers say the lack of decent broadband is crippling rural businesses and putting families at risk of being left behind.
They are calling for Government to future proof rural broadband so the minority of the UK population who struggle with very slow internet speeds “are not cast adrift as the rest of the country gets faster and faster”.
Dr Lorna Philip, who co-authored the study, said the issues highlighted wider challenges for the government to prove it understood what the rural broadband could add to countryside communities.
As part of the Digital Economy Act 2017 the government has, together with BT, put forward a £600m plan for universal broadband but only at speeds of 10Mbps and only by 2020.
This broadband Universal Services Obligation (USO) has been heavily criticised as not ambitious enough, given that 95% of homes and businesses will have access to broadband speeds of 24Mbps or faster by the end of 2017.
The urban-rural digital divide is a fact of life for the final few in rural communities who can only access an internet connection little faster than dial-up broadband, and who often live in areas where mobile internet coverage is poor or non-existent.
Part of the issue is that there is a fixation on improving speed for the majority rather than improving universal coverage, but we need to stop focusing on speed and allow areas that have been left behind the opportunity to catch up or risk excluding them altogether.- Dr Lorna Philip: Study co-author, University of Aberdeen
Dodgy broadband could leave rural communities with potentially profound consequences including depopulation, the study says.
Study co-author Dr Caitlin Cottrill, said the more general move to ‘digital by default’ for shopping, banking, schoolwork and business was having a major negative effect in rural areas.
“If you’re in a remote area with poor digital connectivity this can have a detrimental impact, for example for farmers who need to submit animal registrations or single farm payment applications online, or school pupils who are disadvantaged because they cannot easily access online learning resources to complete their homework.”
While the study admits that community broadband schemes are helping to fill the gap, it says they can’t be the sole solution for decent rural internet.
“Our paper suggests that digital communications policy and regulation would benefit from digital future proofing, to ensure that any public sector market interventions in broadband infrastructure developments effectively address the digital divide,” they add.