The countryside is going digital – but there are still challenges ahead!

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A recent survey by Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College has found that almost four in five rural business owners believe digital tools and services are important to their future growth potential – but that doesn’t mean a digital future comes without complications.

Some of the technologies which rural businesses see as vital for the future include cloud computing, 5G, Internet of Things, machine learning and artificial intelligence - and access to some of these new services are already transforming the way business is done outside of Britain’s major cities. Advances in communication mean a global business can be run almost entirely online from anywhere in the UK.

E-commerce, in particular, plays a big role in helping rural businesses to break new markets and ‘go international’ very early in their development.

As many as 80 per cent of those surveyed by Rural England said they use digital tools and services to export goods and services around the world.

The consultation, which took in more than 800 rural businesses across England and Scotland, provides an important overview of how business is changing.

The top export destinations for rural companies included the EU (84 per cent) and the US (45 per cent), a sign that rural businesses no longer rely entirely on their local community for profits.

Doug Gurr, the UK country manager for Amazon, said: “As long as you have a laptop, internet connection and a good product you can now be local and sell global.[1]

“Those businesses in the rural parts of Britain that have embraced technology tend to be growing faster and are more bullish and more confident about their future.”

The opportunities

1 E commerce

Improvements in internet connectivity, including super-fast fibre broadband and a future 5G network, are the keys to survival for many rural businesses which rely on a virtual market.

The Rural England survey showed that 43 per cent of all rural businesses sell online through their own site or via a third party site, with retail, accommodation and catering the most likely sectors to take this route.

2 Cloud computing

Cloud-based services can help farmers lower their IT costs, scale globally and mine data to help the business, so it’s no wonder that 62 per cent say they use cloud computing for their rural business. Whether the data is used to monitor cow fertility, animal welfare or crop reliability, it can have a big impact on the profitability of a business. 

3 Internet of Things

The new science of machines which ‘talk to each other’ has benefits for both business and society – for instance ‘telemedicine’ which allows people in even the most remote locations to access a doctor online. It can also revolutionise the way farms plant, fertilise and harvest crops – including the use of drones and smart tractors – and help with animal monitoring.

4 Artificial intelligence

The advancement of AI, and particularly robotics, is crucial to many rural industries, allowing routine manual tasks to be undertaken by machines. The government estimates AI could add £630bn to the UK economy by 2035. In February 2018, Business Sectary Greg Clark announced £90m of funding for agri-tech in the UK in a keynote speech to the National Farmers’ Union. He highlighted the Ordnance Survey’s use of cutting-edge satellite imagery and digital data to map England’s farmland and the CROPPROTECT app which helps farmers protect crops from pests, weeds and diseases. [2]

The challenges

1 Broadband speeds

Perhaps the biggest challenge for rural businesses in the digital age is that broadband speeds still lag behind the speeds found in major cities.

Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2017 Report, released in December 2017, [3] found that 1.1m premises in the countryside still don’t have access to reliable fast broadband.

This translates to 17 per cent of rural homes and businesses being unable to receive high quality broadband at download speeds of at least 10 megabits – compared to just 2 per cent of urban premises. This affects 230,000 small businesses.

2 Mobile phone connection

It is not only broadband which holds rural businesses back – even getting a phone signal in some regions remains a problem.
The same Ofcom report revealed that an incredible 82 per cent of rural homes and businesses cannot receive a 4G signal indoors – astonishing a time when 5G is already in the pipeline. The figure for urban regions is 36 per cent.  So-called ‘total geographic 4G coverage, where reception is available from all four major mobile operators, is actually available across just 43 per cent of the UK.

Sarah Lee, Head of Policy at the Countryside Alliance, has taken up the issue, saying: “We know that poor connectivity continues to be a huge concern for those who live and work in rural areas which is why Ofcom’s Connected Nations Report 2017 is to be welcomed as it gives us a real insight into the size of the digital divide. It is important for providers and Government to continue working together and investing to improve coverage in rural areas so that the countryside receives the same coverage as its urban neighbours.”

3 Recruitment

Finding the right staff – and persuading them to live in rural areas – is a continuing challenge for rural businesses; and one which is becoming more complicated. Brexit threatens to make it more difficult to attract talent from abroad, including seasonal workers, while a greater focus on digital skills means businesses have to work harder to attract urban workers to relocate. More than half of rural business in the Rural England research said recruiting people with the appropriate tech skills was a barrier to going digital.

4 Digital support

It is one thing installing and embracing digital services – but it’s quite another finding help when things go wrong. Almost a third of those surveyed reported difficulty finding external or even outsourced digital help – perhaps hinting at a gap in the rural market. A lack of available digital training and a lack of skills in the current workforce were also highlighted.

The bottom line is that digital innovation has the power to transform rural business and is already making a major contribution to the rural economy. There is, however, still work to be done to ensure even the most remote communities have full access to that technology – and a chance to grasp the opportunities ahead.

 

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/07/23/plans-spread-digital-growth-rural-areas/

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/business-secretary-calls-for-new-tech-revolution-in-agriculture

[3] https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/multi-sector-research/infrastructure-research/connected-nations-2017

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Patricia Jones

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