Andrew Jones: We are winning the battle to get North connected

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THE quality of life in our country is higher in the north of England – but there remain big differences between the economies of the North and South, with our economy in the North lagging behind.

There are a variety of reasons why this is the case, one of which is our relative lack of infrastructure. We have historically described infrastructure in terms of transport or power generation.

That is an old definition. Broadband is now one of the key infrastructures of which we need to take advantage. The Government has recognised that broadband matters and then put significant resource into extending it quickly and widely.

The opportunities are so broad they impact on and improve many parts of life. Some are critical for the future – helping with education, or tele-health or having a competitive economy.

Some significantly enhance the quality of our lives – keeping in touch with family and friends.

Some are simply fun – such as streaming films or gaming.

As an example, last week was English Tourism Week, and as part of that I visited the Bijou Boutique B&B in Harrogate. The proprietors, Stephen and Jill Watson, told me that a big proportion of their customers find out about them online, and book online.

Managing their online presence is critical. More customers will be able to learn what their business has to offer. And that matters very much this year, as we host the Grand Départ of the Tour de France and become a huge visitor and media attraction.

Superfast North Yorkshire has responded to this by enabling communities along the route to get broadband. They will not complete this, but at least they have made progress.

It is not just about reaching your customers and them reaching you. Superfast broadband enables business efficiency, helps access better purchasing and takes cost and bureaucracy out of the business.

Basically, businesses without connectivity are being left behind.

North Yorkshire will be the best connected county in the country soon. The reason for this is that a delivery vehicle was already in place to manage a contract. That was a company started some years earlier by North Yorkshire County Council – NYnet.

NYnet has done well. Being in a position to start promptly and knowing where some of the challenges lay has made a difference. North Yorkshire was the first to award a rollout contract. The rollout has been going at 6,000 to 7,000 properties per month.

As of last week, 102,402 properties had been enabled to receive superfast broadband of at least 25 megabytes per second. But just having the capacity is not enough. People have to choose it.

Take up is running at 16.2 per cent, and rising sharply. Superfast North Yorkshire expects to reach 20 per cent by summer and 30 per cent by the middle of next year.

This is significant as these levels of take up also trigger the clawback element of the contract, so the rollout provider – BT – will pay money back to NYnet for reinvestment in rollout to remaining properties.

The lesson from the rollout is the importance of demand stimulation for both residential and business customers.

There has been business support and training on offer. We have had local conferences, at Ripon Racecourse and Fountains Abbey. There have been follow-ups with businesses and over 900 have been helped.

I saw for myself how Superfast North Yorkshire has been operating when I attended the launch of the service into Boroughbridge in my constituency.

It was good marketing. It was December 6 last year, and we had a road show which involved the local school, the mayor, local businesses, some Christmas carols and cake and punch. We even had a giant mouse which I used for the ceremonial switching on. I am told that the take up in Boroughbridge has been high.

What I want to focus upon is how we get the opportunities of broadband to all homes – taking it on from the 90 per cent target in Phase One of the North Yorkshire rollout. That is where the question now lies.

I want to see the people who live in the villages of Lower Dunsforth or Nidd in my constituency – and those right across the North – who are currently missing out.

Some counties seem to be only just starting the sprint when North Yorkshire is approaching the first target’s finish line. It is a competitive advantage for North Yorkshire – and I never mind that – but from a UK plc perspective we need everyone to be there.

Broadband rollout is part of addressing the North-South economic divide.

We are still fighting our battle on other infrastructure, and I think we are winning. But here in North Yorkshire the battle for broadband has been well and truly won.