North Yorkshire’s Rural Commission is calling on Government to view reliable high-quality broadband provision as a basic human right, just like any other essential service needed to sustain communities in a modern age.
Hearing evidence on connectivity from a range of private and public sector broadband providers, commissioners said that access to good-quality broadband had never been more important - given the volume of home and remote working during the Coronavirus pandemic.
They also heard the importance of a broader national approach to include more widely accessible incentive voucher schemes and toolkits to help to stimulate community-led broadband programmes in remote areas.
Rural Commission Chair, The Very Rev. Dean John Dobson DL, said: “There is an urgency now at a political level to tackle this issue. We have a window of opportunity provided by this national crisis that cannot be missed. We must seize the moment to devolve more powers around access to funding and planning for infrastructure to local level to facilitate the rapid change necessary to do this. We must empower communities to work in a more dynamic way directly with providers. What we have heard is that decisions on this crucial matter would be more effective if made here in North Yorkshire.”
Rural Commissioner Dr Debbie Trebilco said: “Broadband and mobile technology need to be seen in exactly the same way as other essential utilities, like water and electricity. As a humanitarian right, to support mental and physical health, education and jobs. Across all the previous evidence sessions we have heard about the importance of connectivity as the artery which makes everything happen and unlocks the county’s potential.”
Also a Rural Commissioner, Prof. Sally Shortall added: “There are two types of digital inclusion, spacial and social. Each will require a different response and often the voices of those living in more deprived economic areas are not included in community conversations. We need to ensure we engage with everyone effectively to understand what is needed to ensure the digital infrastructure delivers for all. Public provision of equipment and public awareness of it needs to be addressed.
“Now – when so many national and regional departments and businesses are working remotely with many thousands of hours of virtual meetings undertaken daily – we can see the possibilities like never before for the county’s economy, education, health and wellbeing.”
The Rural Commission was established by North Yorkshire County Council last year to provide fresh independent insight into the complex issues which need to be tackled to reverse rural decline and support North Yorkshire’s most rural communities to grow and prosper. This is the first ‘virtual’ evidence session.
Commissioners heard that the County Council had made considerable progress in securing access to broadband to large swathes of the county, although take-up in certain areas remained an issue. As part of a partnership this programme is delivered via NYnet and to date phase 3 of this approach has seen superfast broadband rolled out to around 92% of the population of North Yorkshire. In spite of all the progress, there are still around 49,000 people who have no broadband coverage in the county and the vast majority of these, nearly 38,000, live in remote rural areas.
Giving evidence, Robert Ling, Assistant Director for Technology and Change at North Yorkshire County Council, said provision of superfast broadband into the most rural communities should carry the same value as for urban areas: “Rural areas can thrive if we can achieve a blend of digital connectivity which gives them similar access to those enjoyed by more urban areas. If anything, coronavirus has demonstrated that with the right connectivity you can participate around the world, so why not be based in North Yorkshire? However, any investment in infrastructure must be coupled with investment in skills and access to technologies for people and businesses because the two must work together to make sure the benefits of the infrastructure can be realised.”
In his evidence David Burns, Managing Director of Boundless Networks, a private sector provider, said: “Coronavirus has doubled traffic across our infrastructure. Our night time peak is now our day time norm. It’s changed how we work and how we live. I don’t think the future of technology in North Yorkshire is linked to a single technology but that hybrid systems which comprise what’s appropriate for the location are the only fast and economical way to roll out superfast broadband into more remote areas. We need to make better use of what we have, including outdoor wireless technologies. Targeted local approaches can be really helpful in finding the right solution.”
The importance of good and consistent broadband infrastructure across communities is also supported by the Local Enterprise Partnership. David A. Kerfoot MBE DL, Chair of the York and North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Bringing an end to digital disadvantage in rural areas, like North Yorkshire, is absolutely essential for economies and the communities they serve to thrive. High-speed internet, hand in hand with education and advice on how to use it, could be transformative for rural areas.
“Emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic, it is so important the government takes heed of this call to action. The way we live, work and play in the future will be forever altered as life goes online. The pandemic has already taken the greatest toll on those who had the least – we must ensure that people and communities aren’t even further marginalised with the radical change afoot.
“Further to that, North Yorkshire has huge global advantages in growing our economy around green technologies – we have the knowledge, the assets and the landscapes to attract businesses and to help businesses that are already here, innovate and thrive. In order to make this ambition real, we must ensure that businesses can access high-speed broadband throughout the region. In doing so, we will see our economy grow to be greener, fairer and stronger for all.”
Commissioners agreed to consider the requirements around broadband as the first step in understanding how connectivity needs to unleash the county’s true potential. They will explore in more details the complex issues around mobile infrastructure.
More information on the Rural Commission for North Yorkshire can be found here.