Reporting on a study in the North East of Scotland, this paper presents the impact on rural micro businesses of public policy-led next generation broadband (NGB) upgrades to broadband infrastructure. Two major strands of research are presented, digital connectivity and micro business development. Examining digital connectivity, we conclude that digital divides can now feature five levels of inequity, which cannot be portrayed by existing spatial urban/rural classifications. Policy-led broadband programmes do not address local broadband disparities, fall short of addressing digital inequity issues, and often the most in need remain underserved by their broadband service. Examining micro businesses, this paper concludes that such businesses, regardless of their information and communications technology (ICT) skills and methods of exploitation, exhibit the same level of broadband need as their urban counterparts. Further, the rapid and exponential development of ICTs requiring at least an NGB connection is surpassing the ability of businesses to access a ‘fit-for-purpose’ broadband connection. It is evident that some rural settlements are becoming ‘digital deserts’. However, contrary to being solely linked to one’s proximity to population centres, this research demonstrates that lack of access to NGB can occur anywhere over 1.5km from an NGB fibre connection and is determined by proximity to the digital engineering infrastructure connectivity nodes, rather than proximity to urban centres. These digitally isolated spots may or may not be situated in densely populated urban areas. This finding suggests a need to rethink how we frame our perceptions of digital inequity at the territorial level as access to, and experience of, digital connectivity is restructured and organised as a result of NGB upgrade locations and the impact of technologies associated with the digital revolution. We recommend that in order to address these emerging digital disparities, interventions should adopt a co-production, multi stakeholder approach involving actors from community, policy and private sectors in order to realise placebased digital solutions.
This paper was supported by an award made by Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), award reference EP/L50533X/1 and British Telecom (BT) research ICase sponsorship. Acknowledgement and thanks is offered to colleagues at The University of Aberdeen and reviewers for their constructive feedback.