A word often used to describe the challenges of rural living is “isolation”.
Because of where they live, many rural dwellers may not enjoy the same access to facilities as town or city people.
However, it does not have to be this way. Since I took up the post of Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, I have prioritised providing the services which help tackle isolation in rural areas.
Right at the top of this list is the roll out of rural broadband across the north. By the end of March 2015, my Department had invested £7.5m in rural broadband. The initial part of this investment has already seen some 17,000 rural dwellers, farms and businesses getting access the internet, whilst the most recent phase of our funding will enable a further 14,000 rural people to get connected if they wish.
On top of this, I will invest a further £1m from the Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) budget to facilitating access to broadband for more isolated areas in our community.
I also want to encourage all representatives of rural bodies and individuals interested in the development of their local community, to be aware of the broadband scheme under Priority 6 of the new Rural Development Programme. We have allocated £2million to a Rural Broadband Scheme which will provide opportunities for innovative community-led broadband solutions to enhance access to an improved broadband service in rural areas.
I now want to encourage as many rural dwellers as possible to connect to broadband to give themselves and their families the same opportunities as those living in urban areas, to help tackle isolation. We are looking to see how we can actively encourage more and better use of broadband so that rural businesses and farmers can benefit from the wide range of government services now available on line.
At this year’s Balmoral Show, I launched the Rural Superfast Guide, to help rural communities capitalise on the internet and to highlight the benefits of superfast broadband in supporting rural economic growth.
I recently paid a visit to Greencastle Co Tyrone to mark the successful completion of the Village Telecommunication Broadband Project which aimed to deliver a wireless telecommunication solution for that small rural community. The project was supported with £31,640 capital investment from Assisting Rural Communities North West (ARC NW) under Axis 3 of the Rural Development Programme (RDP) and successfully delivered by Omagh District Council and Greencastle Community Association.
I witnessed for myself how broadband has provided an improved quality of service for local rural businesses and their customers. I am delighted that around 170 businesses including farmers, community organisations and households are benefiting from the increased broadband provision in that small area.
Broadband provision is about more than tackling isolation, however. It is fast becoming a basic service and need for our rural communities.
From children doing research for homework, to parents working or shopping online or interacting with Local and Central Government, and with businesses now more than ever trading online in a global market place, it is imperative that rural areas are not disadvantaged when it comes to broadband provision.