The past year has been one of the most challenging years in recent history. During a time when many of us have been physically separate from those we love, internet connectivity has provided a lifeline for many. From remote working and video calling, to online deliveries and endless hours of streaming, it has become even more central to our lives. However, the rural community has been, in places, left behind when it comes to reliable, quality broadband.
As we look ahead, I will identify the societal trends around how we use the internet and what the implications are for those in areas where a reliable connection is nothing but a pipe dream.
- Accommodating a shift from urban to rural
With the government urging people to “work from home where you can” for much of 2020, we saw a surge of people upping sticks and moving from the densely populated cities to more rural retreats. Without the tie of a daily commute, remote working opens up countless options for people when it comes to where they work from. According to Rightmove, in September, property searches saw an uplift in areas with populations under 11,000 and all the places where searches doubled were small towns, villages and civil parishes. This shows the rise in popularity when compared to searches only being up 53% on average across the ten biggest cities in the UK. But what are the implications of this on internet connectivity?
The impact of increasing numbers of people relocating from urban to rural areas has put a strain on many already sub-par networks. Not just this, but the influx of working professionals is creating urgent demand for high-quality, high-speed connectivity in areas that previously had not necessarily needed it to the same extent.
- Emerging entrepreneurs
As well as the relocation trend, the economic pressures of 2020 sadly led to vast numbers of redundancies and furloughs across many business sectors. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, 20% of the UK workforce were put on furlough, 55% worked from home, and as of December 2020, over three million were unemployed.
This has given rise to entrepreneurship, with statistics from ONS showing that in the week leading up to March 2021, 17,096 new businesses were registered in the UK – a significant increase from the 13,965 that were recorded in the same month of 2019.
However, key to creating a successful business in modern times is a reliable internet connection, especially when many important business meetings are happening over video conferencing, not to mention access to information about how to commercialise your idea being online. That may explain why data from Web Eden between March and June found that the majority of new companies were being created in cities with Bristol, Leicester and London seeing the biggest increase in company registrations. To democratise opportunity, attract new talent into rural areas and bolster rural economies, it is vital that reliable, high quality internet services are available in rural communities.
- The adoption of contactless payments
Cash has seen a drop in the UK in favour of digital payments, with data from Statista showing that the total transaction value in digital payments is projected to reach £195 billion by the end of 2021. The reason for this is twofold: COVID-19 has forced many businesses to move online to keep their operations running and in a time when advice is to keep your hands clean, many shops have ditched cash in favour of contactless payments. However, both again rely on a stable and quality internet connection. With people now used to not carrying cash, it seems unlikely it will bounce back in popularity and without the ability to update stock levels and process payments on their website or connect contactless payment terminals to the network, rural retailers face missing out on sales during this particularly hard time.
- Consuming entertainment
Aside from work and business, the internet is also changing the way we are consuming entertainment. TV streaming services have been popular for a while and offer more choice but are often unavailable to residents in rural areas where internet speeds are too low to support streaming. More worryingly for those unable to use streaming services, is the potential shift towards online-only devices. For example, in June 2020, Sony launched a digital-only version of its PS5, which does not have the option to play optical disc games. Similarly, Microsoft has a ‘download only’ Xbox. While there is a disc-drive version also available, albeit at a higher price point, it could mark a trend towards physical formats being ditched in favour of digital, much like we have seen with DVDs since the launch of video streaming services.
- The move to smart villages
The smart city concept, whereby the Internet of Things (IoT) is used to connect multiple devices together to improve quality of life for residents, is no new concept. However, we could soon be seeing the rise of smart villages, which take the same principles, but on a much smaller scale and with slightly different use cases. We’re increasingly seeing exciting developments in smart farming, for example, where yields are optimised by smart sensors that can feed information about environmental factors into data algorithms to determine the peak times to harvest, or farmers being able to activate and monitor their equipment via their smartphones. However, these again require high quality, reliable internet connections to be a success.
Time for action
All the above trends lean heavily on the need for high-speed, reliable internet connections. In the wake of COVID-19 we have become a much more digital society. With rural populations increasing and putting a strain on already sub-par internet services, there will be more pressure on the central government and local councils to level up the infrastructure. By doing so, residents will be provided with a much better experience when working from home, as well as using the internet for things like entertainment and shopping.
To make sure rural residents are not left behind and have access to the same opportunities as urban dwellers, it is imperative the worst-serviced areas are prioritised and the infrastructure needed to provide them with the coverage and bandwidth they need is being rolled out now. If not, we could have a new economic time-bomb on our hands that would see rural economies drop while urban areas thrive, creating a huge wealth gap in the UK.
By Red Peel, Managing Director, Airband