'Digital divide' between rural and urban homes exposed
The "digital divide" has been laid bare after figures revealed households in rural areas receive broadband three times slower than in the cities, according to government research.
Official figures have revealed while the average speeds to homes in "less sparse urban" areas is 14.8 megabits per second (mbps), it drops to just 4.4 mbps in a "sparse hamlet and isolated dwelling".
The gulf makes a huge difference to the what homes and businesses can do online.
Speeds of as little as 2mbps – what the Government is aiming to provide as a basic "universal" service – is enough to watch on-demand television services including the BBC's iPlayer, read web pages and make internet phone calls.
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But so-called "super-fast" broadband – speeds of over 24 mbps as defined by ministers – means several computers could download a video simultaneously on a single line, giving businesses in particular a competitive advantage over rivals.
Broadband speed is a huge issue in rural areas such as Devon and Cornwall, and the Government has committed £1.2 billion of public money to get the quickest speeds possible throughout the country.
But it was criticised after scaling back its targets. Ministers wanted 90% of premises to have access to "super-fast" broadband by May 2015 and a "universal" service for others.
This summer, though, the Treasury said it wanted 95% of UK properties to have access to be on "superfast" broadband by the end of 2017, effectively shifting the goal until after the next general election.
Huge subsidies are funding the roll-out in the Westcountry, where local authorities and businesses leaders are prizing the technology to help attract new businesses, prevent young people from fleeing and allowing traditional, increasingly online-dependent industries such as farming to compete. The Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme – which has £30 million from the Treasury and £20 million from local authorities – has a 90% "super-fast" target for the end of 2016.
The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly £132 million broadband scheme is funded by EU subsidies, rather than the UK government, and is aiming for a higher percentage of premises – 95% – to be hooked up next year. Telecoms giant BT is the contractor of both contracts. According to telecoms watchdog Ofcom's latest figures, average broadband speed in Plymouth is 14.4mbps, Torbay 11.6mbps, Cornwall 10.3mbps, Devon 9.2mbps, and Somerset 8mbps.
The average, though, masks the fact thousands suffer from glacial speeds, with the percentage of premises getting less than 2mbps in double-digits across the five Westcountry local authority areas.
The Labour government's plan to get 2mbps speeds to every home and business by 2012 was ditched by the coalition Government.
The figures, in a report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, follow warnings that rural residents suffer as a result of where they live.
A committee of MPs warned last month that countryside communities face a "rural penalty", with higher house prices and council tax but less funding for local schools, and poor mobile phone coverage.