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Monday, 20 July 2009

Why Martha Lane-Fox MUST focus on rural notspots

Our new digital inclusion champion (such an unfortunate acronym), Martha Lane-Fox, has recently said, both on twitter and to the press, that her task is to focus on the poorest in this nation for broadband and internet and not....

...those most desperate for connectivity, particularly in rural areas ie the digitally excluded who really, really don't want to be excluded any longer.

So, her job is purely to try to bring on board those for whom the internet age is still anathema, viewed as too expensive, of no interest whatsoever, etc, right? In order to achieve this, we have given her £2m of the public purse. There is no guarantee whatsoever of any substantial payback or return on investment of this public money by dragging the unwilling and impoverished online. Not to say that there won't inevitably be some box ticked (and much lauding and backslapping done) when an illiterate sink estate resident who has had few chances in life gets online, off benefits, and becomes the next Martha Lane-Fox.

If we are to get a #digitalbritain, and we know that there are limited resources to do it because of recession, telco greed/reluctance, stupidity, (pick one or all) then why the hell are we not investing some of the money we do have in putting it where there will be a reasonably guaranteed quick win / payback to generate more to refill the coffers?

That's my first question. Why spend it on the digitally reluctant? They will come aboard when they are ready. And by then the right infrastructure may well be in place for them to benefit from it.

My second question is where would that money be best spent to get poor people connected to decent broadband?

Let's look at the reality of where many of the 'poor folk' are located who Martha wants to engage. Just taking my own county, Cumbria, as an example, our average wage is 63% of the national average. That's pretty bloody low and on the scale of things puts us down near the very bottom of the league tables for earnings. ie POOR. But lump us into the North West region and it all looks more rosy because of Liverpool, Manchester etc. However, Cumbria is POOR. As is much of Yorkshire and Lancashire.

On my patch, we now have credit unions being set up (Westmorland Herald, 18th July 2009) because there are "significant pockets of poverty in Eden", while low wages are a problem across the district. In many rural areas, poverty is hidden from view - we have no beggars on our streets, nor homeless people in doorways, but that doesn't mean there are not many homeless and poor people.

There are a "remarkable" number of people in my area who don't even have a bank account - my neighbour is one, and I know the problems this causes, just in paying bills etc now both our local Post Offices have been closed. Nor can he afford a car. Many of us are struggling to afford fuel to buy food from the cheaper stores such as Aldi, Lidl or even the main supermarkets - a mere 40 mile round trip no town dweller would envy, especially in winter. In fact, Eden is the most geographically deprived area in the whole of mainland UK.

I could cite facts and figures all day about rural poverty. It is hardly a hidden issue. Over 2 million living in rural poverty - 2008; Over 900,000 children living in rural poverty; etc - add your own below.

However, when rural broadband notspot folk stand up and voice their growing frustration at the situation, they are invariably just told to move house. Apparently, we have made the choice to live in the countryside. And yet what those rural broadband notspot people are doing is


Precisely what government and telcos are so desperate to see to justify investment and get a return. What do we need to do to make it any clearer that demand for broadband in rural areas is HIGHER than in urban? Even Ofcom have published figures showing that...

My argument would be that the previously-mentioned sink estate resident (who is of course utterly fictional) has just as much option to get off their arse and work, move house etc and doesn't need further state handouts to get online. If they haven't got the importance of the internet, ICT, broadband and so on with all the previous government projects we have had, so be it. At least, if they want it, there is probably a choice of broadband providers offering 8Mbps+ to their home.

Being geographically deprived means that if you are living in rural poverty you are worse off than anyone in urban poverty. Why? Because the urban poor have easier access to the basics - primary healthcare, education, as well as commerce choices, communications options, and so on.

The need to regenerate rural areas has long been known, and whilst we have frustrated business start ups with innovative ideas champing at the bit in rural areas to supplement their meagre income, many are unable to do anything about it, except make a major social, economic and emotional decision such as move house, according to those who keep suggesting it.

As affordable housing is a prime problem for government because we are lacking sufficient, then moving house from rural (low house prices) to urban (high house prices) may mean removing yourself from the property ladder entirely, or downgrading (this is downward social mobility and is very much NOT what this country needs) just to set up your business and help to contribute to UK Plc.

So, joined up thinking, please, Ms Lane-Fox, friends and advisors. Put the money where it will have most impact. Put it where just for once we get a return on public spend. Put it where it makes most sense for future innovation and investment.

Not just the poor, but the poor in rural areas who most want broadband NOW.

£2m would make one helluva difference and we could have next gen pilot projects creating high-tech rural clusters where networking amongst companies will make the most of the urgent desperation by so many to make the most of their lives. And we might even see some of those urban deprived heading out on public transport to areas of the countryside where they can additionally help to regenerate the rural economy by working, eating and spending there.

--End Monday rant--


Cyberdoyle said...

Very good rant for a Monday that!
I think the government still think the rural areas are full of peasants who don't need internet access, and if they do then mobile 'will do' for them. I hope Martha reads your blog and sees the truth in what you say, and that helping the rural poor will tick far more boxes and do far more good than anyone thinks possible. Granted the same access will help the rural rich and businesses too, but if it raises prosperity it also raises the sustainability of 90% of the uk rural land mass, and stops the 10% urban portion having to subsidise it. The NDAs have spent millions in regeneration of urban areas, it is now time to look to the rural ones.

Rebel with Cause said...

It is odd that wit her comment MLF betrays lack of understanding of the dynamics of innovation 'S' curve. Much as she may have been asked to somehow accelerate up the curve those who are 'unwilling' there will always be people propping up the rear!

Some proper dynamic systems modelling is required to work out which strategy is likely to provide better results- otherwise the conversations ends up being emotional and without proper evidence.

It seems to me that what matters is the end result- fully interconnected Digital Britain.

GuyJ said...

@Rebel - add "by individual choice" to your closing comment and I'll second your conclusion :)

Why rural matters is the lack of choice - a big fat zero in terms of effective broadband for 20%+ of North Yorkshire eg.

The issue of Social Notspots where choice is available needs to be about providing people with awareness of what connectivity can do to benefit them and their families...

And respecting the decision of those who do not wish to be connected.

I heard from a colleague today that 2Mbps broadband is available to 98%+ of the POPULATION today in Denmark

The primary task in the UK is to reach that level of choice and that means focus on Rural Notspots Martha!

Cybersavvy UK said...


Nice comment!

Is it MLF who doesn't understand it, or government departments seeking quick wins for the media etc?? How can we change this haphazard spend of public money so it fits established business and innovation principles?

Care to offer some dynamic modelling to can in a box and Fiver To The Home?