Digital dream ends in £22m deal

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A £22m deal has been agreed between BT and council bosses to extend the availability of high-speed broadband in South Yorkshire following the controversial collapse of the Digital Region project last year.

The failed scheme saw council bosses plough millions into the construction of their own high-speed network in 2009.

But the £150m Digital Region plan failed to attract sufficient customers and ran up enormous debts before the plug was finally pulled. Now it has been announced that BT and authorities in South Yorkshire have agreed a deal which will ensure high-speed, fibre broadband is available to around 98 per cent of homes and businesses in the Sheffield City region by 2017.

It is hoped the new Superfast South Yorkshire project will make the area a more attractive place to live and do business, bringing new investment and generating an economic return of more than £270m.

Coun Sir Stephen Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, has worked with other city region leaders on this joint project with private sector investment.

He said: “We’ll increase fibre broadband coverage across South Yorkshire, taking it from the current 80 per cent to around 98 per cent by the end of 2017.

“Private sector investment from BT is helping us to make this £22m project happen. This is a major achievement for the city region, and a huge step forwards for South Yorkshire.

“We’ve committed to providing superfast broadband in the Sheffield City Region Strategic Economic Plan, as it’s fundamental to our vision for growth. This will keep us in the digital infrastructure fast lane, making us competitive when it comes to attracting inward investment.”

The project will cost £22m, to be funded jointly by BT, Broadband Delivery UK and Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster councils. The roll-out plans will be announced in the coming months.

The first communities will benefit from improved access to online services and better connectivity for businesses from the summer of 2015.

BT group’s managing director Bill Murphy said: “Superfast broadband is a key part of the present and future success of the whole of South Yorkshire.

“The technology is vital to modern life whether you are a hi-tech start-up or an established family firm in a traditional industry such as manufacturing.

“It will become even more essential in the increasingly ‘connected world’ of the future. Fibre broadband is now becoming essential for consumers too. Existing broadband is struggling to support the growing number of web based devices in the home.

The majority of South Yorkshire premises will be getting access to some of the best broadband speeds.

The deal has been welcomed by the Government. Digital Economy Minister Ed Vaizey said: “Today’s contract signing marks the first step in what will be a remarkable transformation of South Yorkshire’s digital landscape.

“Access to superfast broadband is no longer a luxury, but a necessity and the £22.4m investment in faster broadband for South Yorkshire will provide a huge boost to the local economy.”

James Newman, chairman of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “I am delighted the four South Yorkshire authorities have taken this important step towards reinforcing the Sheffield City Region’s reputation as one of the best places in the country to live, work and invest.”