I welcome the conclusions of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in its report on Broadband Coverage in the UK (see link below). In particular, the Committee points out that:
"At a time when the Government is attempting to encourage diversification in the rural economy, to persuade farmers and others in the rural economy to access Government services electronically and to facilitate social inclusion for rural areas it is counter-productive that it has allowed a 'digital divide' to open up between urban and rural areas in terms of access to broadband."
Among their findings are some points I have been making to Ministers, OFTEL and BT for some time, for example that
"setting trigger levels for all exchanges, no matter how high they might be, would help rural communities to gauge their prospects of accessing broadband via ADSL"
"There is a proportion of the countryside - generally the most rural and remote areas - where the provision of broadband cannot reasonably be left to the marketplace. In order not to disadvantage such areas intervention is essential. We therefore recommend that the Government rapidly identify those areas in which its intervention is needed; develop policies, in conjunction with Regional Development Agencies and local authorities which ensure that broadband is made accessible in remote areas; and back those policies with adequate funds."
There is however one matter on which I differ from the views of the Committee. They say:
"By offering good quality services online the Government can make a vital contribution to stimulating demand for broadband services, which will in turn encourage investment in such services."
I agree with this general point; however, in recommending that
"the Government [should] move quickly to offering all of its own services online, including those services particularly directed at rural communities."
the Committee misses the point that I think the e-Envoy has now taken on board, namely that the goal of putting everything online has led to too much scattered effort and wasted resource, with a proliferation of suboptimised and badly maintained government websites and many services that few people find useful. In my view the government, local authorities and agencies should - like industry - be selective about those services that are most useful online and where most value can be added, and should focus on making these popular and successful.
The Committee is clearly not satisfied that DEFRA (the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs) is doing enough to make sure we address the rural digital divide. Now that the Broadband strategy resides in the DTI and not centrally in Government, it is indeed vital, as the Committee says, for DEFRA to "do more" to stand up for the interests of rural communities.