By basing your business in a rural location, are you putting yourself at an automatic technology disadvantage to your urban competitors? Will IT and communications services and support for metropolitan businesses inevitably cost less, be of better quality and easier to source? If you need to recruit tech-savvy talent, will it be harder to lure the right people away from the bright lights of the big city?
If your business has any sort of dependence on technology, one of your prime concerns will be broadband – in particular, its availability, speed, quality and cost. Rural businesses have historically been at a significant disadvantage here. Successive UK governments over the last decade have been aware of a rural-urban ‘digital divide’ and a lot of work has been done to try and bridge the gap.
Signs of progress
Recent figures from telecoms regulator Ofcom suggest that progress is being made. The average broadband speed across the UK rose 64% between May 2012 and May 2013. However, during that time the average speed enjoyed in rural areas rose by 69%, which means it is improving at a faster rate than either urban or suburban areas.
Despite steps the right direction, there is still a marked gap in broadband performance, mainly because cities are more likely to enjoy so called ‘superfast’ broadband. This is broadband that is delivered all – or at least most – of the way to its destination over optical fibre, not the ordinary copper-based ADSL that still dominates rural connectivity. It’s a similar story when it comes to mobile connectivity, with 4G speeds more commonly found in built-up areas than green and leafy ones.
Business on the move
It can at least be said that the internet has liberated many types of business from the absolute necessity of an urban location. If you conduct your business banking online and buy your insurance and other key services online, you are already less tied to urban centres.
Attitudes have shifted as the economy turns digital. Business culture, within certain vertical sectors at least, is starting to embrace the countryside. A business is now more likely – even if centred in a town – to allow its employees to work from home many miles away. Certain service industries, such as call centres, now actively avoid city centres with their high real estate costs and space constraints.
When considering an out-of-town location, planning and forethought are essential. It is certainly a mistake to write off the possibility of a rural location until you have fully investigated whether its IT strengths and weaknesses are real or based on assumptions. This is according to Toby Parkins, founder of Headforwards, a firm of software engineers based in Pool in Cornwall.
“You don’t have to be in a city to find people who know about new technology areas like cloud or video conferencing. We’ve got that round here.”
Toby Parkins, Founder Headforwards
“We’ve got fibre in this part of Cornwall and the internet here is very reliable,” he says. “But if you’re looking outside of cities, you can’t pick any old building and assume that good quality broadband will be there, or will be arriving soon. There are some rural locations so remote that you can’t imagine fibre will ever be run out to them.”
Headforwards is privileged to enjoy somewhere in the region of 330Mb per second of broadband download speed, which is far faster than most urban businesses can get, but then it does benefit from its unusual proximity to good, new fibre links. “I’ve got all this fibre, and a sea view from my window,” Toby enthuses.
At your service
However, it is not simply a matter of checking download speeds but also the choice of services that are available. “That’s a precaution you should be taking with a city based business as well,” Toby points out. The overheads represented by other aspects of IT – for example support and consultancy – should not necessarily be more expensive in the country than the town.
“I’d say that non-urban support providers will be trying that little bit harder to please, as their customers are harder to come by,” Toby says. “You don’t have to be in a city to find people who know about new technology areas like cloud or video conferencing. We’ve got that round here.”
Recruiting people with good IT skills requires a touch more ingenuity outside of highly populated areas. “Cornwall is an idyllic rural location but people are put off coming to live here because they don’t believe they’ll find a job,” says Toby. “There are many high quality jobs, to add to the benefits of the location. We’ve not had trouble recruiting.”
However, recruiting someone with a particular IT competence involves more than just placing an ad in the local paper. “You’ve got to be a bit smart, and market the job at people,” explains Toby. “You’ve got to put it up online, or on social media, and talk about what a great place to work you are offering. You’ll probably find that a lot of people simply aren’t aware that there might be good tech jobs in your area, and have not even considered it. You have to reach out to them proactively.”
Toby is convinced that the recruitment challenge may actually be greater for a firm based, say, in the South East of England. “There’s huge competition for good people in such a location, and so many employers for people to choose from,” he says. “There’s lots of employee churn in cities. If people are happy in a rural location, they won’t want to switch jobs so urgently.”
If happiness equates to lower stress, then the choice should be rural every time. “I have a five-minute commute,” says Toby. “I know people here with a 30-minute commute, but that’s their choice because they want to live in a particularly remote spot.”
Not every out-of-town business is as digitally privileged as Headforwards, but with the right sort of reconnaissance you too could run a successful and well-connected enterprise by day and be walking the dog on the beach every evening.
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