Ofcom's rural broadband claim disputed

The claim that rural broadband penetration is now greater than that in urban areas 'beggars belief', says a rural economy organisation

An Ofcom report claiming the closure of the digital divide between rural and urban areas in the UK has been dismissed by a rural economy organisation.

Last week's The Nations & Regions Communications Market 2008 report suggested that a greater proportion of rural than urban households now has access to high-speed internet — a major reversal of previous impressions of the divide. According to the Country Land & Business Association (CLA), however, the claim "beggars belief".

The CLA released a statement on Thursday in which it suggested that the report "fails to take into account that broadband connections often do not deliver the high speeds advertised, and also that many rural businesses cannot get broadband at all because they are too far from their local telephone exchange".

"Suggestions that the broadband divide has closed are simply not true," said William Worsley, deputy president of the CLA. "The digital divide is about availability, and the fact remains that, in a significant number of rural areas, ADSL broadband access is simply not available. The existing internet access speeds are often appallingly slow, hitting the viability of businesses."

Worsley went on to claim that the CLA was being contacted increasingly by rural businesses who felt at a competitive disadvantage to nearby rivals because they could not get a "cheap and reliable ADSL service".

"We are worried that anyone reading coverage of the Ofcom report will get a distorted view of the true picture," Worsley added. "Everything is not rosy with broadband in the countryside, despite Ofcom's wanton optimism."

On Monday, Ofcom defended its report. "All we stated was that rural households now have overtaken urban homes when it comes to broadband take-up, ending this particular geographical divide," a spokesperson said.

"That is not to say that other divides will not appear in the future — differences in broadband speeds between urban and rural areas, for example," the spokesperson continued, adding that Ofcom's reports had "already very clearly identified social disparities in the take-up of digital communication services".

"However, it is entirely appropriate to report, with firm statistical evidence, that 59 percent of rural households now have broadband, compared to 57 percent of urban households, which is a significant turnaround," Ofcom's spokesperson added.