Rural areas are home to one fifth of Scotland’s population and over one third (50,000) of the country’s SMEs*. Rural SMEs have been one of Scotland’s bastions of economic growth over recent years, making them very important to our overall economy. Yet, arguably, the most limiting of factors for these businesses is access to decent broadband services.
I’m very fortunate to have travelled deep into rural Argentina, South Africa, Lebanon and Turkey, to be stunned to see that I’m receiving all my emails, thanks to full 4G service.
Yet, why is it, that running my busy marketing business in rural Aberdeenshire, that my basic communications grind to a halt because I can’t get online nor access mobile phone services? And I’m far from alone.
Two years ago, frustration drove me to installing satellite broadband whilst continuing our wired BT service as a back-up; however, at a fitful 256KB upload and often much less than 1MB download speeds, the BT service isn’t fit for domestic, let alone business purposes.
My 100GB of satellite data costs me £99/month, yet often, two weeks in to my monthly data package, I reach my limit, resulting in a ‘choking’ of my service. The next service tier will cost me £250/month. These costs put me at an economic disadvantage to my urban business counterparts.
Progress is promised by BT and the Government; however, Scotland’s superfast website tells me I may never receive it because we have an ‘Exchange Only’ line.
So, what are my alternatives?
I could move my office to a town, and become a non-rural SME, but this is counter to the Government’s drive for rural SME development, or, if mobile signal was strong enough (which it isn’t), subscribe to an equally expensive 4G service.
Hope lies in the new technologies coming, including Li-Fi which would deliver services 100x faster than wi-fi via LED lighting, or Project Loon, a network of ‘edge of space’ balloons designed to provide connectivity to rural areas.
There’s also the Government’s community broadband incentives, but, by all accounts, funding is very hard to access and requires the support of BT, which seems near-impossible to galvanise.
But maybe there is another ‘win-win for all’, to channel post-Brexit agricultural support towards incentivising farmers to become internet service providers. Farmers have the land and equipment to dig the fibre trenches and I’m certain that some entrepreneurial engineers would grasp the opportunity to wire us up. However, for this to happen, the telecoms infrastructure also needs to be opened to competition, rather than leaving it in the hands of BT.
What is certain, continuation of our rural broadband woes will make it difficult for the Government’s vision for a vibrant rural economy to be fully fully realised.
*small and medium enterprises with under 250 employees.