North Yorkshire voices inform leading research into digital connectivity

The voices and experiences of Coverdale residents are proving crucial in the shaping of effective digital infrastructure for remote communities, leading researchers have revealed.

People in Coverdale, who have been contributing to research into mobile connectivity, have talked about the frustrations and difficulties caused by poor connectivity and their hopes that reliable connectivity would bring families and entrepreneurs to settle in remote communities.

At a recent Revitalising Rural campaign seminar, held by the Rural Services Network, researchers working on the Mobile Access North Yorkshire (MANY) project highlighted the importance of working in an inclusive way with rural communities.

Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) – partners in the MANY project – have been carrying out an independent study looking at the lives and livelihoods of remote rural communities and the impact of poor connectivity, with Coverdale as a case study.

Using data gained from 40 interviews, Professor Katy Mason, who leads the study, and research associate Sharon Wagg – both from LUMS – explained that their early findings have been shared with the MANY technical team to shape what the project delivers.

This means that the connectivity delivered by MANY, which is part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) £200 million 5G Testbed and Trials programme, will work for the community.

Professor Mason said: “To build connectivity networks that drive the economy, we need to understand how social, material, technical and economic elements can drive this digital market infrastructure. This involves understanding the area by listening to those whose lives and livelihoods are based there.

“In Coverdale there are racing yards, tourism business and people employed by blue-chip organisations working from home. They all need access to this new market infrastructure to enable them to trade, do business and deliver value for their customers and clients”.

Research associate, Sharon Wagg, who recently completed a PhD on rural digital inclusion, said: ‘Early themes we are hearing from the project have focused on the experiences of residents and generally revolve around how poor connectivity wastes time and makes life difficult.Research Associate, Sharon Wagg from LUMS

“However we’re also hearing residents’ hopes – that reliable mobile connectivity will ensure people stay within the community and attract new families and entrepreneurs.”

Yet the study, Sharon explained, had also heard that there are concerns with bringing connectivity to rural communities: “There are anxieties surrounding a lack of understanding of 5G, the health concerns, how connectivity affects the aesthetics of the countryside, as well as the impact it can have on community cohesion. Hearing and responding to these concerns is as important as understanding the experiences and aspirations, to ensure connectivity is utilised to its full potential within rural communities.’

Kerry Booth, Assistant Chief Executive of Rural Services Network said ‘Ensuring that rural areas are not left behind in the race forward with digital connectivity is one of the key issues that we campaign for.

“We are disappointed that the Government has reduced funding from £5bn to £1.2bn and that targets for 2025 are now to reach 85% of premises, leaving poorly serviced rural areas behind yet again.  We welcome projects such as MANY, which aim to support rural communities and enable connectivity in hard to reach areas’

Executive Member for Access, North Yorkshire County Councillor Don MacKenzie said: “The work carried out by Lancaster University Management School is integral to MANY. Yet, it also has an important place to inform the wider rural connectivity agenda and those organisations who work with and for rural communities”.

Professor Katy Mason concluded ‘These government funded projects are important but their complexity creates tensions between the different stakeholders that come together – the technical experts, the social scientists, civic groups and commercial organisations. All these stakeholders see and understand the world differently and we have to invest heavily in listening to each other, working together and using these understandings to ensure we are doing responsible research and innovation with and for our communities’.

The findings from MANY and Lancaster University Management Schools independent research study will be fed into DCMS’s future rural connectivity policy, which aims to level up rural communities ensuring they benefit from new innovative technology like urban areas.

MANY’s 5G network is due to go live in parts of Coverdale in Summer 2021.