Digital connectivity is a big topic in rural communities – whether you are for or against it – most have an opinion. The one person who hears the frustrations of those who do not have it is a Divisional Councillor for an area.
Councillor Karin Sedgwick, is the County Councillor for the Middle Dales Division which includes Coverdale, the area the MANY project is hoping to provide the latest technology to via a mixture of fixed, wired and wireless technology. There are many examples for those who want it and how it can benefit the area she says, ‘people in my division have a lot to say about the lack of broadband and mobile signal in the area – for example, you often can’t receive text messages until you move out the area and then it pings through’.
Futile if you do not leave the area for a few days. Texts are supposed to be instantaneous.
It also has wider implications. More businesses are using texts to communicate with customers, clients and patients. GP surgeries, for example, use text to send results out or ask that repeat prescriptions or appointments be made online. ‘Leyburn GP Surgery, for example, has one catchment area which has good connectivity; yet the other – Coverdale and the upper Dale – has none. There is a marked difference with how they approach the medical help that they give’ says Cllr Sedgwick, who is NYCC Chairperson of Care & Independence, Overview & Scrutiny Committee.
The use of digital connectivity within surgeries took place before Covid, allowing patients to book appointments and order repeat prescriptions but since, it has had a dramatic effect. Now patients can have phone consultations, are required to upload photos and receive results. Places with a lack of connectivity miss out. One resident the MANY project spoke to said ‘I have had to wait in – all day – waiting for a telephone conversation with a Doctor. I couldn’t go out because I had no mobile signal.’ Although Covid will not be here forever, the NHS have suggested that these changes will stay. In April 2020, Digital Health ran an article with the Chief Executive of NHS Digital who said ‘I think we will see a broader use of (digital) tools such as e-triage along with citizens use of technology and remote care – we will stick to this new way of using technology’. In order for this to work in all areas, there is a need for fast connections, which allow video calls and potentially real time data.
Other examples which reliable and robust connectivity can offer is Internet Banking – something that has grown dramatically in the last few years and has been compounded by the closures of rural banks – the most recent; the announcement of HSBC in Richmond. ‘I think more would use it if they could’ says Cllr Sedgwick. A sentiment the MANY project has heard in some of their interviews– both from those who run businesses and also residents. ‘There is an element of people that prefer to go to the post office to draw out money because it’s a day out but Internet Banking offers other opportunities.
Others issues Cllr Sedgwick has heard about is safety. When you have no mobile signal and you work in a rural area, it can be dangerous. ‘Training stables are the biggest industry and employer in the area and it is so important for them to have connectivity’ says Cllr Sedgwick. ‘To quote one of the leading trainers– any progress is good because at the moment it is difficult (to keep staff and horses safe) and trying to run a business when you’ve not got what everybody else has is hard’ Cllr Sedgwick continues.
Yet a lack of digital connectivity has a wider impact on an area – sustainability. ‘Young people keeping in touch with one another is practically impossible because there is no immediate connectivity’ says Cllr Sedgwick. However, young people use mobiles and broadband more widely than just keeping in touch with each other – they want more and their lives are more reliant on it than ever. For example, 48% of all adults aged between 16-24 years old play games online, with 57% use video sharing platforms, meaning buffering or slow connections can be frustrating. The use of smart technology is on the increase with 22% of adults having a smart speaker such as Alexa’s and 11% of households owning some kind of smart home technology like SMART metres. All of which need reliable and ultrafast connections to get the best out of it. Consequently, an area not offering what young people want motivates them to move away – connectivity is one of the factors but there are others.
Young people moving out the area has wider impacts. According to Cllr Sedgwick ‘primary schools are in danger of closing or having to amalgamate because of the decline in numbers of school age children. A resident spoke to the MANY project about how there were very few under nine-year olds in their area meaning the school had to merge with 2 other schools. Cllr Sedgwick points out ‘when you amalgamate schools over a big area and you have only got 10 children in one and 15 in another, trying to get them all in one school is logistically very difficult because you have lots of travelling with primary age school children’. Equally, this year has seen students rely heavily on remote learning. The dynamic change schools have made suggest that learning online may continue in the future, for example, when schools have to close for reasons such as snow days or flooding.
The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority have published a Management Plan with one of the aims to attract young families to the area. In order to do this, they recognise that they need to give them what they need – including improved mobile communication and superfast broadband. Plus the demand is growing. A recent Farming UK (2020) article stated that there is a pull for young people to move to rural areas due to the pandemic and a recent article by the Yorkshire Post (2020) stated that young families are looking for places to live but one of the key factors is fast broadband speeds in order for them to have the opportunity to work from home.
5G offers this. Giving young people and families ultrafast broadband and mobile connections outside the home – giving them access to the latest technology, which will future proof the area. Moreover, bringing young people and families back to the area will have a knock on effect to the local economy.
‘A resident told me that they were keen to develop digital learning in the Village hall using the 5G connection’ said Cllr Sedgwick. ‘This type of activity would give residents – who may lack confidence with new technology because they have never had the opportunity to engage with it – the chance to learn in a safe environment surrounded by their neighbours and friends.’
The MANY project is one of seven Rural Connected Community projects part funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. It wants to enable the latest technology – 5G – in the North end of Coverdale to support the needs of the community but, also, the sustainability of the area. Taking advantage of the drive felt by young people to move to rural areas, the MANY project network could go live by April, meaning it will be able to offer those people who can propel the economy forward what it is they want and need.
Cllr Sedgwick is very supportive of the project. ‘Although I do understand that some don’t want it. I think this project is our opportunity to bring us up to speed – so to speak. We don’t want to be part of the 35% of North Yorkshire which doesn’t have coverage’ she states.
‘I do think that if this does not go ahead my entire email box will be full of people saying that this is not fair, I am being left behind, why can’t I have it? It would make so much difference to my life’ says Cllr Sedgwick adding, ‘assuming they have got the connectivity to email me’.