Is Government strategy for Superfast Broadband jeopardising Rural Businesses?

Stephen Henstock, Sales Director of Telecoms Company Ardencom asks the question, as Britain’s Superfast Broadband future is debated in last week’s PMQs.

Once again the roll out of faster Broadband is stumbling along with the Government ‘s strategy remaining unclear and unfocused.

For example, it considers that in certain areas of the UK—particularly rural areas—there is a limited commercial case for market-driven private investment to improve coverage and quality of service. But what about farmers who have been forced to expand into other commercial diversification, altering the basic needs of their operation from tractors to technology? And if private investment won’t foot the bill – who will?

A prime example is Postern House Farm. Run by the Robinson family it is a typical East Staffordshire farm of just over 500 acres. It is a ‘mixed’ unit, which means that they operate both arable and livestock farming.

As on many farms, agribusiness practices have altered enormously at Postern House Farm in the last few years. In 2004, they opened a Maize Maze for the first time. Adrian Fisher – The world’s leading maze designer – was involved in the concept and design, making it a truly world class attraction for East Staffordshire. The maze drew over 8,000 visitors in the 6 weeks it was open last year, proving a popular day out during the school summer holidays.

Many farms have been creative in the way they evolve, turning away from traditional models that are no longer economically viable and reinventing themselves as ‘theme parks’ in order to survive. Postern Home Farm’s programme now offers activities such as farmyard golf, an adult soft play barn, an assault course, Slot Quad Bikes, The Bouncy Bull, pig racing and other animal demonstrations to name but a few. They are also working with schools to provide a Farm Park and Education Centre. By bringing in thousands of new visitors, their impact on other rural businesses in the area includes overnight accommodation providers, pubs, restaurants and shops.

With a Broadband speed of just 0.6-0.7 Mbps, efficiency has been limited by the upload and downloads functionality, but more essentially the operation of PDQ payment machines of which there are six in the Adventure Farm office.
Tom Robinson who runs the farm with his brother Ivan says, ”When there have been consecutive days of downtime, it has made the running of the business very difficult because most people want to pay by card. Luckily we retained one analogue PDQ that found itself very busy indeed.”

Fortunately for Tom and Ivan, the newly developed St Georges Park National Football Centre is just two miles down the road. An academy of excellence, the 330-acre site, funded by the Football Association boasts 12 pitches and will be one of the leading national football centres in the world. It will host all of England’s 24 national teams in state-of-the-art training facilities. There are to be two Hilton Hotels and a conference centre also developed at the site. The FA has invested heavily in local infrastructure and will bring the advantage of optic fibre technology closer and therefore increase the broadband speed potential to 40 Mbps for Postern House Farm. Telecommunications provider Ardencom is busy working to install their Broadband connection onto a fibre infrastructure to optic technology to accommodate this.

But not all rural businesses are lucky enough to be a couple of miles down the road from a £100 million project.

Why can countries such as France, Germany and even South Korea get their act together when we can’t? According to the most recent Akamai ‘State of the Internet’ report, the UK ranks 16thin Europe and 25thglobally. Some who contributed evidence to this inquiry have lamented that the UK is therefore “achieving speeds more than three times slower than South Korea.” This is worrying as recent research by the Boston Consulting Group put the internet’s contribution to UK GDP in 2010 as more than that of construction and education and online retail is expected to account for up to 23% of total UK retail in 2016. From our experience as a Telecommunications provider, we have drawn the conclusion that if the UK can enhance its Broadband provision, then further economic benefits will follow. Clearly Britain has more to lose if it falls behind. If the government wants faster economic growth, then it can’t afford to ignore rural areas and the contribution to the economy made by the many business parks, industrial works and evolved farm enterprises that struggle with inadequate Broadband speeds.

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