I am working on a project called Satellite Internet for Rural Access (or SIRA). This project explores the impact that broadband (and a lack of) has for rural businesses in the UK. The project is founded on the philosophy that the rural economy not only needs but deserves access to broadband in order to compete with other businesses in the UK and worldwide.
The Internet is becoming increasingly integrated into our society. Internet access is now crucial for access to much information and many Government, healthcare, business, employment, educational and leisure services. It is a growing assumption that people can access the Internet and therefore these services. The relatively low provision of Internet to rural communities is therefore disadvantageous to them in cultural, educational, financial, social and political terms.
This is a shame given that the Internet can be a means for those in rural areas to minimise the problems associated with living remotely. For example, those living rurally may be geographically remote from each other and subsequently important social and business networks. Broadband connectivity can help people to stay connected and participate in online social networks which may be relevant to them. Broadband connectivity allows people to work remotely – something which might improve the employment and educational prospects of many rural dwellers. The Internet also provides access to a wider range of goods and services for those who cannot normally access these due to remoteness – for example online food shopping via supermarkets which often deliver the goods to the customer’s door.
These issues are crucial for rural businesses as well. The Scottish Executive argued in 2000 that “If we are not connected we shall not compete. Embracing the Digital Age is not an option but a necessity for success.” Internet can provide opportunities for networking with potential business contacts and collaborators and therefore prove advantageous for those businesses struggling to network in more traditional ways. A number of opportunities exist for businesses which are either only accessible online or promoted via online networks relating to particular business sectors. Furthermore, some rural businesses would benefit enormously by being able to promote their services online and maintaining an online presence.
SIRA is composed of two strands: firstly, we’re carrying out a baseline study in which I am exploring the issues that a lack of broadband imposes on rural businesses. I’m interviewing a number of businesses who do not have access to broadband and hearing their stories. Secondly, we’ll be selecting about 5 of these businesses to carry out our case study research – installing satellite broadband into the premises of the businesses (often based at home) and exploring how the businesses respond to broadband. How does broadband impact on business activities? What kinds of web-based applications are most popular/useful? Do the types of online activity become more sophisticated with increased experience? In what ways can broadband access transform rural businesses? The businesses we work with are often very small SMEs, typically based at home and with a small number of employees (if any). These business people will therefore be using their new broadband connections not only for business purposes, but also for a range of other purposes relating to their own and their family’s needs, allowing us to explore the impact of broadband on a number of levels.
An exciting new development is the decision to focus on rural creative industries. We made this decision for a number of reasons, not least because creative industries tend to use the web in a more demanding way – publishing material online (e.g. images, audio and video content) rather than simply consuming the web. Rural creative industries without access to broadband therefore may be at a particular disadvantage in comparison with their urban counterparts. As well as our baseline study in Scotland we will also be carrying out a small comparative study in rural Cornwall – interviewing small creative industries to learn more about the impact broadband has in rural UK. This project is interdisciplinary – my work is on the social side, but my colleagues in Engineering will be doing some really interesting stuff with the case studies, in particular by designing new techniques to improve the Quality of Service experienced by satellite users in rural locations. The data gathered from the case studies will inform the design of these new services. We hypothesise that a wide number of socio-economic outcomes will result from enhanced broadband provision to rural creative industries such as a stronger competitive edge, enhanced business and social networking, new ways of working, more effective business publicity and a wider reach to clients and members of the community.
On this project I am working with:
A related project, DART – see: http://www.dotrural.ac.uk/dart/
is working with users to develop new on demand booster services to deliver high capacity content such as movies to rural users.