01-06-2022 | | By Robin Mitchell
While Cornwall is well known for its proximity to the beach and stunning views, it is also well known for its lack of internet infrastructure fit for the 21st century. Why are rural areas falling behind in technological development, what will the new funding do, and what solutions currently exist for those in rural areas?
There is no question that the internet plays a central role in modern society, and as society becomes increasingly more dependent on the internet, the argument that internet access should be a right by law is becoming harder to argue against. Whether it is paying for bills, sharing information, research, learning, or gaming, the internet is involved in just about every aspect of life.
This dependency on the internet became highly apparent during the COVID pandemic of 2020 that saw vast portions of modern life restricted. Any job not considered essential was effectively frozen, social distancing restricted people from mixing, and travel was outright banned. Thus, the internet played a critical role during this time, with remote work allowing many employees to continue earning a living, allowed for online orders to be fulfilled, and video messaging services allowed people to stay in contact.
Fast forward to 2022, and it is now clear that those with poor internet access struggle to interact effectively with society. Except for low-bandwidth services such as email and general web browsing, most modern internet-related services are impractical over slow connections (those below 4Mbps).
Most built-up areas (i.e., cities and towns) will have at least one high-speed internet connection, whether it is through fibre optic, broadband, or cellular. But out in the countryside and having access to high-speed internet is extremely rare, and this lack of access has a serious negative consequence.
The single reason why rural areas often struggle with infrastructure comes from economies of scale. As there are significantly fewer people living in rural areas compared to urban areas, which are also spread across a far greater area, the cost to connect each customer is substantial. Thus, long lengths of cable may be installed just to service a single house, while the same cable used in an urban environment could potentially service thousands.
Recognising the serious challenges faced by those in rural areas, the UK government has been enacting new laws and regulations to try and get those in rural areas better connected. In line with this goal, the government has also announced a further £36m funding boost that will be used to upgrade connections to rural locations in Cornwall.
According to Gov.uk, the new funding boost will help upgrade over 19,000 homes and businesses with speeds up to 1Gbps. The funding comes from the UK Government's larger Project Gigabit, which is seeing £5 billion being spent on internet upgrades across the UK. Broadband companies can bid for the new funding boost to help install new connections. Not only are homes and small businesses receiving connection upgrades, but schools and hospitals are also being upgraded under the scheme, allowing for better connectivity and large file transfer. This is one problem that local hospitals often face when trying to send large medical files, including x-ray images and scans.
While the new funding will help provide low-latency high-speed internet, those in rural areas still have other options. The first and most suitable is to use cellular networks such as 4G and 5G. Even though cellular networks are not available in all rural areas, using a large antenna (that can be purchased and paired with an LTE router) can offer decent speeds. However, these generally need to be installed by a professional who knows the location of local cellular towers, and such transceivers need to be installed at high locations with a clear line of sight.
If cellular networks are not an option, then satellite internet is another option that can be explored. While these can offer decent speeds (up to 100Mbps), they are often costly, have poor latency, and are often restricted on total allowed data. Additionally, satellite internet requires a large satellite dish to be installed external to the property, and damage or obstruction to this dish will significantly reduce the connection quality.
A new option that is slowly making its way onto the market is the use of low-earth orbit satellites such as StarLink. Unlike typical internet satellites that sit in geostationary orbits, these low-earth orbit satellites are significantly closer, meaning that they have better signal latency (50ms compared to +500ms). However, these services are still yet to be fully established, and the deployment of satellite constellations is seeing a backlash from the astronomy community (as the fast-moving satellites interfere with exposure shots).
Overall, the internet has become central to modern life, and ensuring that everyone has good access is essential for providing a fair society. Of course, some would argue that internet connectivity is a privilege provided by living in an urban area and that those living in rural areas should carry the cost of infrastructure. But considering that rural areas are responsible for producing many raw materials and food, it could be argued that their infrastructure is equally critical to those living in the city.