I’ve been invited to offer my thoughts on rural broadband, and its effect on business. On the grounds that I’m both a techie and a user, and might therefore have something more to contribute than those who are one but not the other. The audience for this exercise might even include some of our elected politicians!
So here are some thoughts.
Politicians have spoken of a new generation of high-speed broadband based on optical fiber. An admirable goal subject to cost constraints, but a completely separate issue to basic, always-on ADSL-grade connectivity. The latter is what really matters, and we want it now, not ‘eventually’.
Politicians have tended to confuse the basic essential with the more ambitious goal. They need to be clear. Rural areas don’t need motorways, but we do need basic access, and we don’t want to be kept waiting while the new motorways are rolled out!
My own experience is that ADSL arrived in about January 2004. 2004 is the year my circumstances moved away from poverty, before completing a turnaround and generating good money in 2005. Since then it has helped me to work for clients and later an employer on distant continents, and to work with a US publisher on my book. ADSL has made all the difference between poverty and prosperity!
The Sword of Damocles
The biggest issue facing rural business is the risk of moving to a new home or premises and finding there is a problem with broadband. We desperately need to be able to get a reliable indication of whether broadband will be available at a prospective address. This has improved since the days of no guarantees anywhere, but that leaves large no-go areas where BT’s checker is ambiguous.
For areas where ADSL (or other terrestrial solutions) are irredeemably uneconomic, might a better solution be satellite broadband? Not to be confused, of course, with the one-way-only data used by satellite TV and optionally supplemented by other means (usually ‘phone lines). Promoting satellite broadband more widely could help bring costs down (economies of scale), and policymakers could perhaps encourage it – e.g. with tax breaks or even rural development funds. Could be particularly useful for a rural hamlet too small for a telephone exchange, where a satellite connection could serve as a shared hub. This is something where we (locally) could seek to ally ourselves with other rural areas more widely: at EU-wide level (for instance) it could have real weight.
 My definition of business here includes self-employed and employees working from home or from a small rural office, as well as more traditional business premises. The arguments apply to everyone short of bigger-biz with the resources to provide their own broadband connection privately.