The lack of broadband communications in rural areas is forcing businesses and young people to abandon the countryside, a government advisor says.
The comments, by Stuart Burgess, the government's rural advocate, came as Digital Britain minister Stephen Timms published the government's roll-out plan for a universal 2Mbps broadband service by 2012, leading to high-speed services to 95% of the country by 2017.
Burgess said the lack of broadband and mobile phone coverage in many rural areas hits young people and businesses. It prevents them from finding jobs, learning and support services, joining a social network or getting internet help with homework. Such connectivity had become an everyday feature of urban youth culture, he said.
"Digital technology offers major hope for rural people and businesses - creating a new way to access services, socialise and take advantage of e-enterprise. But while 60% of urban areas can receive cable-based broadband, the figure slumps to 1.5% for villages and hamlets, and many rural areas suffer patchy mobile phone coverage," said Burgess.
"For rural young people, exclusion is a double blow. First, schools and colleges expect students to get internet help with homework. Second, they are excluded from text messaging and online networking."
Burgess called on the government's delivery of next-generation access by 2017 to put rural areas with the greatest need at the forefront, and equal attention should be paid to improving mobile phone coverage.
Timms said a new report by consultancy AnalysysMasons showed that government support was needed for broadband in rural areas. The government would develop a £1bn fund from a 50p-a-month tax on fixed-line phones to fund superfast broadband to 90% of homes by 2017, he said.
A new government body, Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) is responsible for rolling out next-generation broadband across the UK, Timms said.
"Our proposed £1bn Next Generation Fund will help bring the benefits of super fast broadband to more communities. We do not want to risk the digital gap widening, which is why we have put a team of experts in place to ensure further investment is targeted at those people without adequate access," he said.
Rural affairs minister Dan Norris said next-generation broadband access was vital to rural communities and businesses for growth and social links. The research would help public bodies and BDUK identify what areas need attention so that systems can be developed for these communities.
The AnalysysMasons report showed that a 50p monthly duty on all fixed phone lines would increase high-speed broadband coverage to 90% of the population by 2017 - 20% more than an entirely market-led approach would deliver.
Comments on the Fibre to the Home blog suggest the government is being overcautious.
One wireless provider said, "Fixed wireless has been the staple diet of many developed and developing nations for years. I am not talking some shoddy Wi-Fi mesh system either. Sadly these are what the government seem to be basing wireless capability on. The recent consultation document says wireless is 'typically under 2Mbps'. A complete stitch up job. None of the fast providers were consulted over this at all."
Cybersavvy UK said 1Gbps wireless was now highly affordable. "It's just that no-one is really jumping on this yet and putting in working projects," he said.
But this would shift the network bottleneck until there was access to affordable backhaul, he warned.
He said using wireless instead of fibre had nothing to do with money. "Any community network can lay sustainable FTTH in rural densities of around 10 properties per route mile - as has been proven elsewhere," he said.
"We need to get pilots in to prove this to the morons in Westminster and elsewhere who keep accepting evidence from the telcos who have very clear financial disincentives for getting on with the job."
The data used in the AnalysysMason report is available from the ESD Toolkit and Data.gov.uk. Stakeholders can map the coverage of their own areas in 2012, 2015 and 2017 under each of three roll-out scenarios.