A multi-million pound package has been unveiled to help as many as 700,000 homes in rural Yorkshire get connected to superfast broadband to stop them being left behind in a digital revolution.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has pledged £15m to get homes in West Yorkshire and the Humber hooked up to superfast connections in a drive to give the country the best high-speed network in Europe by 2015.
With tens of millions of pounds of public money already pledged to roll out networks in South and North Yorkshire, the funding aims to ensure 90 per cent of homes and businesses are able to access fast broadband over the next four years. The money is targeted at areas where it is not commercially viable for communications firms to fund the networks themselves.
But Ministers admit that despite spending £530m across the UK, 70,000 homes and businesses in the most remote parts of Yorkshire could still be left in the slow lane for years to come, a fact criticised by the Countryside Alliance.
Mr Hunt said: “Fast broadband is absolutely vital to our economic growth, to delivering public services effectively, and to conducting our everyday lives.
“But some areas of the UK are missing out, with many rural and hard-to-reach communities suffering painfully slow internet connections or no coverage at all.
“We are not prepared to let some parts of our country get left behind in the digital age.”
Ministers are conscious that some remote areas are currently suffering “painfully slow” internet connections or no coverage at all. While most urban areas are well served, many rural residents and businesses are left in “not spots” or “not a lot spots”.
The Government wants every home to have access to basic broadband – two megabits per second – by 2015, while 90 per cent of homes should have superfast connections - up to 20Mbps - so users are better able to download music and video.
Rolling out superfast broadband to remote areas would allow small firms to set up far away from towns and cities while residents – particularly the elderly – could benefit from getting shopping delivered or having online medical consultations rather than travelling miles to the nearest medical centre.
But Government statistics reveal that an estimated 687,835 residents and businesses across North, South and West Yorkshire will be left with slow connections unless the Government intervenes, along with an unknown number in the Humber area.
North Yorkshire has already having been granted £17.5m from the licence fee – but Mr Hunt said yesterday he is making £6.3m available for West Yorkshire and £8.5m for the Humber. The money will have to be matched by councils who will draw up plans for how to deliver it, and they will have to achieve the 90 per cent coverage target in their area.
There is no new money for South Yorkshire because millions of pounds of Yorkshire Forward money has been set aside for rolling out fast broadband there.
Mr Hunt said: “I urge all those suffering the frustration of slow internet connections to make it clear to your local elected representatives that you expect them to do what is needed to access this investment and to deliver broadband to your community.
He insisted the ten per cent who will not be covered immediately have not been “forgotten” and will have at least a slow connection, but said the faster network would have to be built up in stages.
Sarah Lee, head of policy for the Countryside Alliance welcomed the money as a “massive boost to the rural economy”, but added: “This announcement will only ensure 90 per cent of our homes and businesses will have access to superfast broadband by 2015.
“In other European countries, such as Denmark, they only have one per cent of homes outside the reach of ADSL, WiMAX or fibre-optic broadband coverage.
“If rural areas are to compete economically and socially then it is vital that rural communities and businesses have access to effective and affordable broadband. Without this, there is a danger that the digital divide will grow even wider and rural economies will be unable to grow and prosper.”