Covid exodus: Will broadband help or hinder new 'rural remote workers'?

The coronavirus outbreak saw many offices lock their doors, with many workers forced to quickly adjust to the new normal of ‘Working From Home.’

Now, it seems ‘WFH’ is here to stay. Even though the Government is actively encouraging people to head back to the office, not all businesses agree, and they don’t come much bigger than Google. Its CEO has told employees that they aren’t expected to return to the workplace until the summer of 2021, saying this will “offer the flexibility employees need to balance work with taking care of themselves and their loved ones.”

It’s not just the tech giants that plan to keep the home office warm for a while longer yet. A recent survey found that an incredible 85 percent of large businesses intend to expand their remote working policies as a result of their employees’ experiences during lockdown, while almost half expect to downsize their office space.

More people are swapping city life for the countryside

With Working from Home now the norm, it’s only natural to expect that more and more people will leave the hustle and bustle of big cities for more tranquil settings in the countryside. Research by property firm Savills shows that Covid-19 has led 71 percent of under 40s to prioritise a garden or outdoor space when buying a house, and that’s much more of a realistic option in the country. Rightmove has also registered a sharp rise in interest for village living across the UK, with the residents of Liverpool (up 275 percent), Edinburgh (205 percent) and Birmingham (186 percent) the most keen to buy a home in the countryside.

If there is an exodus, it will certainly breathe new life into rural communities, while it will also bring new job opportunities to people living outside the main urban centres. Jobs that were once only available to people who could afford to live in or commute to a big city, will be available to anyone – if they have a decent broadband connection.

And here lies the catch.  

Working from home is a broadband challenge.

When offices shut up shop in March, broadband became a highly prized household commodity – perhaps even more so than toilet paper!

A patchy or slow internet connection can be immensely frustrating when downloading large files and makes it pretty much impossible to attend online meetings on Skype, Zoom or Teams – something that’s expected of nearly every remote worker during lockdown. People whose jobs involve digital tools such as graphic designers and architects – or those who have particularly slow broadband – have had no choice but to go to work. In some cases, they even had to take their children along with them so they can access the internet for home schooling.

Many rural residents will be familiar with these challenges; Britain’s digital divides mean they are the poor relation when it comes to broadband provision so are used to putting up with slow speeds. However, they could soon be joined in their frustrations by a new intake of ex-city dwellers, who are used to life in the fast lane.

How to make WFH a rural reality

The reason why rural areas still have poor broadband services comes down to economics. It’s an expensive, complicated, and slow process for most network operators to roll out fibre networks to remote locations, especially if those networks will only serve a small number of homes. If rural workers are to access the broadband they need to do their jobs right now, they need an alternative option.

Fixed wireless broadband is that alternative. It is a much quicker and affordable way to connect communities that are currently ‘off grid,’ providing the internet speeds workers require to dial into that Zoom call with their team, or to that presentation to a client. But more than that, it provides a way to level the playing field between urban areas and the countryside.

While the ability to work from anywhere should improve the job prospects of all rural residents, it’ll only become a reality if it’s underpinned by a decent broadband infrastructure.