Mr Gove, Brexit and the rural divide… let’s be precise!

Last week, in his speech at the National Farmer Union conference, Michael Gove (the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)  identified access to fibre broadband and 4G as a key priority for the rural UK.

This may sound odd to those thinking of the countryside as a wild and old-fashioned world, not interested in the modern technologies. In point of fact, access to internet and digital services can hugely benefit rural communities and businesses. Unfortunately, rural areas have been struggling with poor connectivity for a long time.

So, well done to Mr Gove for acknowledging this issue and taking a clear stance in favour of universal access to broadband! Hopefully his statement will be followed by some concrete actions to support broadband rollout to the most remote communities.

Indeed I do agree with Mr Gove that “we must argue for this investment not just with passion but also precision”: too often public policy in broadband networks has been led by ideology rather than common sense.

Pity that the Secretary of State himself did not resist the temptation of reaffirming his personal beliefs, blaming the EU for the lack of connectivity in rural areas. What would you expect from a Brexiter, after all?

Following Mr Gove’s recommendation, I have decided to put my passion aside and share with you a brief yet precise analysis of his statements…

  • “inside the EU, rules on state aid have prevented us from investing in broadband in a way that is best for the UK”.

The EU state aid guidelines indeed pose a number of restrictions on public interventions in the superfast broadband market. For example, public funds must be assigned through a competitive process and cannot be allocated to areas already served by commercial operators, in order to minimise market distortions.

Such a bureaucratic approach, however, has not foreclosed opportunistic behaviours from incumbents, whilst limiting the responsiveness of public bodies to new market stimuli. Consequently, I agree with Mr Gove that the EU State aid guidelines are far from being perfect.

Yet, it would be unfair to put all the blame on the EU regulation. For example, the failure of the Mobile Infrastructure project has nothing to do with the EU state aid guidelines. Likewise, if the Broadband Delivery to UK programme failed to target the areas most in need for public intervention is not (only) due to the limitations of the current EU regulation.


  • “when we leave the EU we can put that money towards domestic priorities, like making our digital infrastructure work by improving rural broadband and connectivity overall.”

I cannot disapprove Mr Gove’s intention to devote “the money we no longer have to give to the EU” to rural communities (even though I thought they had already been promised to NHS… )

However, the Secretary of State could have been more precise and mention the considerable amount of EU funding invested to expand broadband coverage across the UK over the past 10 years.

As detailed in the table below, almost £300m from the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have been invested to support the supply of fast broadband, under the BDUK programme or other local projects. And the table does not include the numerous projects funded by ERDF to promote the digitisation of businesses and the creation of digital enterprises across the UK.

In fact, 13% of the £1.7m public funding invested since 2011 in the BDUK programme came from the EU purse. In Cornwall, the EU funded 40% of the overall investment needed to provide 95% of the premises with superfast broadband. (… and, yet, 56.5% of Cornish electors voted to leave)


 Local Authority  Project  Amount (m)
 Wales  BDUK Phase 1  £           80.0
 Cornwall  Superfast Cornwall  £           53.5
 Scotland  BDUK Phase 1  £           25.0
 Lancashire, Blackpool, Blackburn with Darwen  BDUK Phase 1  £           16.5
 Norther Ireland  BDUK Phase 1  £           16.5
 Cumbria  BDUK Phase 1  £           13.7
 Cheshire East, Cheshire West & Chester, Warrington, Halton  BDUK Phase 1  £           13.6
 South Yorkshire  Digital Region  £           11.7
 North Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 1  £           11.6
 West Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 1 & 2  £           11.1
 Greater Manchester  BDUK Phase 1  £             5.0
 East Riding of Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             4.4
 Merseyside  BDUK Phase 1  £             4.4
 Nottinghamshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             2.7
 Derbyshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             2.5
 Cambridgeshire  BDUK Phase 3  £             2.3
 North Lincolnshire, North East Lincolnshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             2.1
 Northumberland  BDUK Phase 1 & 2  £             2.0
 Warvickshire  BDUK Phase 3  £             2.0
 Worcestershire  BDUK Phase 3  £             1.6
 Leicestershire  BDUK Phase 1  £             1.2
 North Yorkshire  BDUK Phase 3  £             1.0
 Wiltshire, South Gloucestershire  BDUK Phase 1  £             0.7
 Cambridgeshire, Peterborough  BDUK Phase 2  £             0.6
 Lincolnshire  BDUK Phase 1  £             0.6
 Greater Manchester  BDUK Phase 2  £             0.5
 Newcastle  BDUK Phase 1  £             0.4
 Total EU funding for local broadband projects   £         287.3


No matter how significant the contribution of the EU has been so far: according to Mr Gove, the rural divide in the UK will be solved only taking back control. To be more precise, though, the Secretary of State should have also clarified how the government intends to exert its control on the superfast broadband market. In particular:

  • What resources will be made available to compensate the loss of EU funding in support of digital inclusion?
  • What rules will be applied to foster investment and safeguard competition in the broadband market?
  • What regulation will be enforced to make public interventions more effective and efficient?

All these questions need a precise and clear answer, if we want to address the rural divide effectively. Don’t worry, Mr Gove… you have time until 29th March 2019!


Data about EU funding have been retrieved from:,,,,

Broadband for all, all for broadband

As part of my research, I have recently had an exciting trip to Melling. I suspect most of you do not know this tiny village in rural Lancashire. Neither did I, before discovering Broadband for the Rural North (B4RN).

For those who do not know B4RN, I would suggest to have a look here and here. To put it simply, it is a community project providing ultrafast broadband to connect remote and super-rural villages in the North West of England. Since 2011, people from the local communities teamed up to dig their own network. When I say dig, yes, I mean that! Volunteers are digging the ducts and posing the fibre – rather than just waiting for telcos or public authorities to do it.

Along with the physical roll-out, B4RN runs the ‘Come and Get IT Club’. Every Friday, people are welcome in their office in Melling to seek assistance with routers and tablets over a cup of tea. In a very friendly and passionate environment, anyone can learn the steps to set up a Vonage account or the tricks to boost the wi-fi signal indoor.

One Friday afternoon I joined the Club in Melling and it was one of the most fascinating experience of my researcher’s career. There is no better way to research such projects than being part of it for few hours. Therefore, I immersed myself in B4RN’s world for one day…. and I learn a lot, indeed. Now I can even self-install a fibre termination into my house –  I just need to wait for B4RN to come to Newcastle.

Most importantly, I had the chance to directly experience what communities can achieve when people share their expertise to pursue a communal goal. Listening to the stories of volunteers, employees and customers, I just realised that initiatives like B4RN can really empower local communities, by providing a faster connection and getting people actively involved in the digital revolution.

In the early 2000s, many communities wireless networks were established and scholars viewed those projects as an opportunity to promote both digital inclusion and socio-economic development. Unfortunately, only few of those initiatives have survived to the impediments of wi-fi technology and the difficulties of cooperative projects. However, B4RN proves that community-led networks still have a lot to say and to do. Policymakers and practitioners should carefully listen to such initiatives and learn some lessons.

First, innovative business models can make a difference and challenge our common sense of broadband investment.

Second, people are the most powerful asset when their potential is acknowledged and their contribution is valued.

Third, broadband is definitely not a luxury good for techies and urban elites. Anyone can get the most out of it, when provided with a decent connection and practical skills.

It may be too early to evaluate the long-term impact of B4RN. Nevertheless, this project is forcing policymakers, practitioners and researchers to rethink the dynamics in broadband market and consider alternative approaches to infrastructure delivery. Its implications might go beyond the diffusion of digital services and inspire a new model for social inclusion and economic development.

No need to say that I am excited and proud to research it!