Residents within the North end of Coverdale have been informing Mobile Access North Yorkshire – a £6.4million Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Rural Connected Communities project.
Over the past few months, the project have engaged with a wide variety of community members to understand their current experiences of connectivity within the area, whilst gaining knowledge about their hopes and expectations. This has informed the project ensuring that the technical solutions proposed are right.
The engagement process has included several themes: community engagement and parish council meetings as well as one to one research interviews, as part of an independent study undertaken by Lancaster University Management School.
Led by Professor Katy Mason, the research project has included in-depth anonymous interviews, which allow residents to explain their lived experiences. Professor Mason said ‘through our interviews we develop an understanding of resident’s experiences, hopes, expectations and concerns of connectivity. This information is collected and analysed in accordance with our ethical guidance. We look for patterns in the data – what people are telling us. Our findings are then fed into the MANY project, so that the technical solutions developed are right for the people in the community’.
Coverdale, which is known for its rural tourism, farming and racehorse training, currently cope with sporadic broadband and little mobile signal. This means – for many – lives and livelihoods are more difficult than they should be.
However, the project has heard that the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened this. Working from home, remote schooling and GP appointments are some of the activities that have moved online. Moreover, there is an assumption – amongst many – that this move has been easy. However, in rural Coverdale – as in other areas where digital ‘not spots’ exist – it has been difficult.
Leo Morris, manager of The Saddle Rooms, said ‘we have had guests walk out because of the lack of digital connectivity – people expect it and we can’t currently offer it’.
Explaining further ‘as a hospitality business we have been hit hard by the pandemic which has included having to close for many months and losing key events. If we had better connectivity across the site we can ensure our customers and staff are happy and safe but, also, drive the business forward through things like personalised virtual show rounds for weddings. We are at a disadvantage because we lack the basics that our competitors have access to’.
Tim Brown, a local farmer from Agglethorpe ‘DEFRA assume our systems are online. For example, updating records whilst out or registering cattle after their birth – we cannot upload there and then. If we had fast connections, we could do. However, we also struggle with unreliable broadband which has been known to go down for weeks; therefore we can’t even take the information home and upload it’.
Tim added ‘if we had reliable connectivity we could do so much more. For example, we could put cameras in the sheds so we have a live stream available during calving. My son, Edward, has just finished Newton Rigg College and has so many ideas but until there is a reliable connection – inside and out – it is impossible’.
Tim’s partner, Sarah Close, says there is wider implications of a lack of connectivity – the move of people away from the ‘dale. ‘Young people tend to move away from the area at working age but they are keen to move back when they are ready to start a family. However, it doesn’t offer what families want’.
Sarah adds ‘giving people what they want will bring people to the area; making the area thrive. Ensuring its future’.
North Yorkshire County Councillor, Executive Member for Access Don MacKenzie said “the last few months have allowed Coverdale residents to have their voices heard about their current connectivity experiences informing not just the project but a programme which can influence future rural connectivity across the country. It has been integral to the project to develop this understanding to ensure the right solutions are developed.”
The engagement carried out highlight that there is a need for both reliable and robust connectivity in the home whilst mobile data and signal outside. The network, MANY proposes, ensures that the community will be ready for the future as more 5G devices come onto the market. This means that this rural area will be at the forefront of technological advances rather than surviving with previous generations.
The second phase of the project sees the development of roaming agreements with the Mobile Network Operators to ensure the legacy networks are, also, in place.