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The Challenges of Digital Inclusion in Rural Areas

Written by Prof. Simeon Yates, Director at Institute of Cultural Capital

Though getting high speed broadband to many UK rural areas remains a challenge, this is not the only issue facing rural communities seeking to take advantage of digital technologies. The arrival of broadband can have unanticipated consequences for communities as well as benefits.

The Digital Leaders network ran a research salon in Aberdeen on 24 May to explore the issues surrounding digital access in rural parts of the UK. The salon drew on the experience of both academic researchers and the voluntary sector.

The Digital Neighbourhoods research project at Plymouth University presented findings from their four-year project that has been investigating the impact of superfast broadband access on rural communities in Cornwall that are part of the Superfast Cornwall programme. The research has focused on the links between social, spatial and digital inclusion. In particular, it studies the impact of the integration of online social networks with place-based networks for rural communities, and the implications for digital and social inclusion.

Dr Katharine Willis, presented some outcomes from the research around the role of ‘places’ such as libraries and village halls, for linking digital skills in online and offline social networks as an approach to overcoming digital divides.

The salon also explored the work of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisation’s (SCVO) digital participation team which has funded a wide range of, mainly, third sector organisations across Scotland to support people to gain basic digital skills. These projects have primarily supported the development of skills and confidence but also tackled motivations which can be lacking. Of course, all of this is based within localities where broadband connectivity is less than that in more populated geographies. Sally Dyson, SCVO’s head of digital participation shared case studies and the lessons learned from the many projects based in rural areas across the whole of Scotland.

Dr Leanne Townsend and Professor Claire Wallace, of the University of Aberdeen presented research which was carried out at the dot.rural Digital Economy hub, between 2010 and 2015. The projects explored the critical role of broadband technologies for rural/remote rural communities and economies, with a particular focus on the role of broadband and its applications for the rural creative industries.

Their findings suggest that improved connectivity can impact rural businesses greatly, allowing them to function more competitively, reach wider markets, collaborate with remote colleagues and stay informed of developments in their sectors. Where connection speeds are not adequate, business owners are forced to out-migrate to better connected areas, with implications for the resilience of rural communities more broadly.

The following debate noted the considerable similarities in the issues being faced in different rural UK locations. Importantly, though broadband roll out at reasonable access speeds was a core concern, other key issues such as skills, impacts on business, migration of people from and to rural locations, and innovative, if convoluted, solutions to access (such as going to stay in a Premier in on the mainland) were examined. It was also noted that many of the challenges faced by low income households in rural areas were very close to those faced by similar households in urban areas. This pointed to the fact that some of the challenges may reflect social and economic issues as much as physical access.

As a result, access (fibre in the ground) may not itself provide the answer on its own. Worryingly the lack of access was pointed to as a reason for people and businesses leaving rural areas, not only reducing the local economy, but putting local resources (schools and health care) at risk as local populations may not have the numbers to sustain local provision. Providing access to the internet and to the global digital community, may therefore also be very important to maintain local community identity, services and community.

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