Ministers face growing pressure to fix ‘digital deserts’ across region

Stuart Burgess of the Commission for Rural Communities
Stuart Burgess of the Commission for Rural Communities
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THE full scale of slow broadband and poor mobile coverage holding back parts of Yorkshire has been exposed as Ministers face calls to move faster to tackle a digital divide.

Barely one in seven people in North Yorkshire currently has access to superfast broadband according to maps published by telecoms watchdog Ofcom, revealing “digital deserts”.

In some parts of the region one in five homes and businesses do not even have access to a “decent” basic speed connection, which the Government has promised for every home by 2015.

Towns and cities generally fare better, but rural areas are also blighted by mobile “not spots”, with no reliable signal across one third of North Yorkshire.

Last night the Government’s countryside adviser appealed to Chancellor George Osborne to use the Growth Review later this month to extend coverage.

Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities, said: “If I had one wish of what the Growth Review was about for rural communities it would be around providing the infrastructure to roll out broadband and mobile coverage.

“Rural broadband and good mobile phone coverage go together, you can’t separate them as issues. After affordable housing it’s the number one issue in rural communities throughout the whole of England – in some areas it’s the number one issue.”

He added: “If you get good broadband access and mobile phone coverage it’s going to stimulate and help the rural economy, help small rural businesses to grow and develop.”

The Ofcom maps reveal that North Yorkshire has the worst coverage of superfast broadband, which is vital to download films and music or to send large amounts of data, with just 15 per cent of homes and businesses having access.

Coverage is 41 per cent in North Lincolnshire, 54 per cent in Wakefield and 55 per cent in Rotherham and Doncaster.

Coverage is best in North East Lincolnshire at 90 per cent, while 82 per cent of homes and businesses in Leeds and 81 per cent in Bradford have access.

North Lincolnshire is the worst “not spot” for basic speed broadband – classed as two Megabits per second – with 21.8 per cent of homes and businesses missing out. In North Yorkshire, Kirklees, Wakefield and Barnsley at least 17 per cent are left out.

The Government wants every home to have access to at least basic speed broadband by 2015, with 90 per cent of people in each local authority having access to superfast broadband in the best network in Europe by 2015.

But the Yorkshire Post has urged it to go further, with the Give us a Fair Deal campaign calling for every home to be given access.

Councils have been given £530m to deliver superfast broadband to homes and businesses that would otherwise miss out because it is not commercially viable for private companies to do so, although local authorities have to find the rest of the money themselves.

But a Digital Region scheme designed to make South Yorkshire the best-connected area in the country for next-generation technology has hit trouble, with the final stage of roll-out delayed because take-up by homeowners has been lower than expected.

Chi Onwurah MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science, said the Government was failing to deliver on broadband and mobile networks for rural areas. “This is a barrier to economic growth. Labour in government was working towards universal broadband by the end of 2012 but the Tory-led Government has abandoned that goal and the rural economy,” he said.

But Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, added: “We have quadrupled the amount of money available for superfast broadband. We have brought forward the roll-out of superfast broadband from the next Parliament, which is Labour’s policy, to this Parliament.

“And in October the Chancellor announced £150m to get rid of mobile coverage gaps and increase mobile coverage to 99 per cent of the population. I think that our record is pretty good.”