The range of services and opportunities which are exclusively available through the internet has grown significantly over the past decade, and access to broadband is now regarded as a necessity by the majority of UK businesses and households, writes Bryn Francis of the FUW.

This has become particularly visible during the Covid-19 pandemic as many have relied upon access to broadband for keeping in contact with friends and family and to work virtually from home.

Whilst we were not surprised with the results from a survey on digital connectivity, which we ran with National Federation of Women’s Institutes-Wales, CLA, Farmers’ Union of Wales, NFU Cymru and Wales YFC, it has confirmed that there is still a gaping hole between urban and rural areas when it comes to access and stability of broadband and mobile phone reception.

The survey showed that over 50 per cent of respondents from a rural area felt that the internet they had access to was not fast and reliable and that less than 50 per cent of those who lived in rural areas stated they had standard broadband and only 36 per cent had superfast broadband, with 66 per cent stating that they or their household had been impacted by poor broadband.

In comparison, 18% of their urban counterparts said they had access to standard broadband and 67% had superfast broadband.

The findings of the survey are a real cause for concern and it has become clear that despite many UK and Welsh Government promises made over the years, the digital divide between rural and urban areas has not been addressed.

The FUW has campaigned relentlessly over recent years for the reliability and speed of rural broadband to be improved given that farmers of all ages are now required to use computer technology for their online business transactions.

We are fully supportive of moves which encourage the use of online services where they are available and practical in order to reduce administrative burdens and minimise the risk of errors, and we have demonstrated this in terms of our support for RPW Online and the instrumental work the Union has played in completing online SAF submissions on behalf of its membership.

As poor digital connectivity evidently impacts directly on our rural communities and farmers, we maintain the need for the Welsh Government to further invest into rural infrastructure to enable farm businesses to capitalise on digital connectivity opportunities and not be left behind, increasing the digital divide between urban and rural areas.

Poor digital connectivity also has a wider social impact whereby insufficient broadband and mobile signals in rural communities have been highlighted as a barrier to victims of domestic abuse from being able to access support. Such concerns have been highlighted by rural mental health charities during the pandemic.

With access to reliable broadband still evidently below the national average in many of our rural areas, and farm businesses representing a large proportion of those with no broadband access, it is essential that the limitations of online services and communications are recognised and that rural access to broadband is increased.