Further to Digital by Default’s look at the need for improved rural connectivity, a new report has highlighted that broadband speeds in rural areas are lagging up to three times slower than neighbouring cities only a few miles down the road, with council leaders warning they are at a ‘competitive disadvantage’ to urban areas.
Analysis by the County Councils Network (CCN), which represents England’s 37 county councils, reveals that over two thirds (72%) of England’s counties are below the national average download speed of 45mbit/s and more than a quarter (27%) have average speeds below Ofcom’s definition of superfast (30 mbit/s).
For some counties, it means that their areas have average download speeds that are far slower than large urban and city areas that they neighbour. Locations in North Yorkshire have an average download speed of 30.2mbit/s, compared to neighbouring York’s average speed of 102mbit/s. Ryedale shares a boundary with the city of York, yet residents and businesses in Ryedale get average speeds of less than one fifth (25.8mbit/s) of those enjoyed in the city.
Areas within Derbyshire have an average download speed of 31.6 mbit/s, almost half of that of the county’s city, Derby, which has average download speeds of 59.3mbit/s. Just a few miles north of the city, residents and businesses in Amber Valley have average speeds of just 25.9mbit/s.
The figures show there is no regional variation to the urban v rural broadband divide, with rural Dorset (26.9mbit/s) having half the average download speed than urban Gateshead (51.3mbit/s), and less than half the speeds enjoyed by residents and businesses enjoyed in neighbouring Bournemouth (61.2mbit/s).
In total, 169 areas in England have broadband speeds below the national average. Four fifths of these locations (83% are based in England’s counties). There are 79 areas in the country that have average speeds below Ofcom’s definition of superfast; all but four of these are based in counties.
The highest speed in England is 102.9mbit/s in York, whilst the lowest average speed is 21.8mbit/s in West Devon.
A full outline of the findings can be found here, based on average county figures compiled by Grant Thornton UK LLP, who used Ofcom data.
Digital infrastructure needed
County leaders say their rural areas need to have the digital infrastructure to compete with cities and urban areas, otherwise there is a real risk they will not be able to attract the businesses of the future as England moves towards a greater prominence of financial, tech, and communications sectors, at the expense of ‘traditional’ sectors such as manufacturing.
Last year, a report by leading economic forecasters Oxford Economics warned that county economies are lagging behind the rest of England in those ‘high productivity’ sectors reliant on digital infrastructure and fast broadband connections, such as information and communications, finance and insurance.
The study concluded that when comparing economic growth in counties to that of England, their information and communications sector make a lower contribution to national growth in counties. The report also concluded that productivity – the measure of how ‘competitive’ an industry is within a local economy – was already 14% lower, in counties, in the information and communication sector, and 30% lower in the financial and insurance sector, in rural areas, compared to the rest of England.
Oxford Economics argue that to improve productivity and offset future jobs losses, particularly in manufacturing, county economies needed to ‘transition’ towards a greater reliance on these high-value added sectors in the coming years, supported by specific interventions within the Government’s ‘Industrial Strategy’.
CCN warns that these latest figures, from Grant Thornton UK LLP, show that a lack of investment in digital infrastructure in counties and a continuing focus towards cities in the government’s Industrial Strategy and post-Brexit policy could leave counties continually lagging behind urban areas.
The network argues that counties should have similar powers to drive forward local economic growth as city region metro-mayors, working as ‘strategic authorities’ alongside Local Enterprise Partnerships, and should get a fairer share of infrastructure investment which is currently skewed towards urban areas.
Cllr Philip Atkins, County Councils Network Vice-Chairman, and leader of Staffordshire County Council said: “The government’s commitment to provide superfast broadband to as many areas in England as possible has resulted in some significant steps forward in rural connectivity in the last few years. Counties like Staffordshire are working with national and local partners to connect hard to reach rural areas and improve broadband connectivity.
“Counties are great places to live and work, but these figures show that businesses in shire counties and rural areas are being left at a competitive disadvantage. It cannot be right that in some areas, businesses and residents in a city less than 10 miles down the road from a rural county benefit from average download speeds of more than three times faster.
“While the government has announced investment in this area, we remain concerned that digital infrastructure in counties isn’t getting the attention it desperately needs.
“The ultimate success of the government’s Industrial Strategy will hinge on ensuring we drastically improve national productivity in all four corners of the country post-Brexit. This means ensuring we invest in digital infrastructure.
“More investment is only part of the answer; county authorities need to be empowered as ‘strategic authorities’, alongside city region metro mayors, with devolved powers to drive forward infrastructure investment in their areas. The government’s promised ‘common devolution framework’ is an opportunity to ensure a practical framework for achieving this, placing county authorities as lead, accountable bodies as recommended by leading think-tanks Localis, ResPublica and IPPR.”