DIGITAL infrastructure will be key to improving prosperity in rural areas, a conference has heard.

More than 100 delegates from Dorset and across the South West gathered to discuss ways of improving productivity in the countryside.

The event at Kingston Maurward College focused on a report from the South West Rural Productivity Commission.

The report said a hard-working entrepreneurial culture, combined with a stunning natural environment, provided a platform for the area to become a “hot house” of enterprise.

But housing affordability, the cost of living and an ageing population were all starving businesses of a potential workforce.

The commission said widespread superfast broadband could be a “game-changer” for the region, but if left unresolved the issue would leave some rural areas “left behind”.

Its report found broadband speeds of more than 30 megabits a second (Mbps) were available in 98 per cent of Bournemouth and 97 per cent of Poole, but only 84 per cent of the rest of Dorset. Six per cent of the county had speeds of less than 10Mbps.

While 97 per cent of Bournemouth had 4G coverage and Poole had 94 per cent, 4G only reached 47 per cent of urban areas in the rest of Dorset and only 13 per cent of rural areas.

The conference was chaired by Cllr Deborah Croney, cabinet member for economy, education, learning and skills at Dorset County Council.

She said: “We must send a strong message to government that we are ambitious and serious about increasing productivity and enabling sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

“We need to raise our game if we are not to be left behind. We need to increase productivity by playing to our strengths, which must include enhancing our environment and contributing to more sustainable food production and security.”

The commission called for the government to improve its universal service obligation, which requires broadband providers to provide at least 10Mbps everywhere by 2020. It wants the standard to be 30Mbps by 2025.

Its added: “We are also of the view that mobile coverage is becoming as important or in some instances more important than broadband and therefore should be subject to a similar universal service obligation.”

North Dorset MP Simon Hoare introduced the event.

Luke Rake, principal of Kingston Maurward College, was part of the commission and gave a presentation on its findings and recommendations.

The importance of innovation and the application of new technology were emphasised by Josie Gough, South West director for Innovate UK.