Poor Broadband and IT Skills Fuel Criticism of UK Digital by Default Policy

By GIXnews

By Mark Jackson, ISPreview UK | July 8th, 2014

westminster uk government

The Government’s new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and so-called “digital by default” strategy, which among other things seeks to save money by making some services online-only, faced criticism in the House of Commons on Monday after MPs blasted it for being introduced before some rural farmers could even get access to a good broadband connection.

Europe’s new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which accounts for over 40% of the entire EU budget, is due to be introduced in the United Kingdom from 2015. But the new digital-only approach could leave some people, especially rural hill farmers, out in the lurch as certain tasks (e.g. the payments system) will be moved to an online-only mould (i.e. no more paper application forms).

The change is likely to disadvantage farmers that cannot get access to a broadband connection and or those who lack the necessary I.T. skills to file an online application form. The Government’s Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) programme is of course aiming to make fixed line superfast broadband available to 95% of the country by 2017; not forgetting the 2Mbps for all Universal Service Commitment (USC). But that’s several years away and will probably still miss some people out.

According to Helen Goodman MP, around 40% of the hill farmers in her constituency (Bishop Auckland) have no access to rural broadband. However the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment, Water and Rural Affairs, George Eustice MP (Conservative), said that the Government’s approach wouldn’t be changed but they did intend to provide some additional support.

George Eustice MP said:

I completely understand the point that many hon. Members have made about broadband access. We are investing £500 million through BDUK—Broadband Delivery UK—and a further £250 million in phase 2. We have a third fund of £10 million to pilot creative ideas for those really hard-to-reach areas.

In addition, we will have an assisted digital package. We will send paper guidance to every farmer in year 1, so although they will not have a paper application form, they will have paper guidance. That guidance will include detailed information on our digital offer.

The crucial thing for those lacking the computer literacy to complete their form online or those who have no broadband access is that we will be setting up a number of digital service centres right around the country, particularly targeted at those areas where there is a problem.

Farmers will, thus, be able physically to take their information into an office, which will have privacy and be discreet, and work with an RPA agent to enter that information on the system. That is the right thing for everyone. It is right for those farmers, because it removes the risk of them getting penalties and disallowance.”

It’s worth remembering that Satellite broadband, while often expensive to setup and lacking in usage flexibility due to the high cost of data and poor latency times, is still a viable option as a stop-gap solution for getting online, at least until something better comes along.

We’re glad that the Government will be providing support for those most in need, but equally we can’t shake the feeling that the country’s broadband woes need to be solved before we start forcing vital services to be online-only.

Not everybody wants to use the Internet and millions still don’t, which will take years to solve and even then many will prefer to stay offline.