Superfast broadband lifts business at holiday firm

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IT’S fair to say Rhiannon Fraser is a happy customer.

“The new broadband has totally changed things for us here,” she says. “Our internet used to be so slow it drove us up the wall.”

The Fraser family have run a retirement home and holiday complex in Cornwall for more than 50 years. But the arrival of superfast broadband has now transformed their business, allowing booking to be taken online for the first time and offering high-speed wi-fi access to residents and guests.

“It’s nice for Cornwall to have something first,” Mrs Fraser said. “Usually we’re the last place where things filter down.”

The Frasers are enjoying the benefits of fibre optic broadband thanks to Superfast Cornwall, a local authority-led project which offers valuable parallels with South Yorkshire Digital Region.

Much like the local authorities in South Yorkshire had done several years before, Cornwall Council decided to take action when it realised it would be one of the last parts of the country to receive next-generation internet.

And just as in South Yorkshire, it secured EU funding for its own fibre-optic broadband scheme.

But the project has not faced the same issues as Digital Region.

Crucially, there have been no disputes with BT to hamper progress – chiefly because the telecoms giant is the council’s chosen partner in the venture.

BT won the £53.5m contract to build the new network following a bidding process last year.

“BT’s was the outstanding bid,” says Nigel Ashcroft, project director for Cornwall Council’s economic arm, the Cornwall Development Company.

“We wanted a partner that already had internet firms on board to sell the service, and already had real marketing clout.”

The contrast with South Yorkshire is painfully clear.

While BT has existing internet customers to whom it can offer its new service in Cornwall, Thales – the French electronics firm constructing Digital Region’s network in Yorkshire – does not.

“We wanted a partner who could offer us some take-up guarantees and a potential customer base,” Mr Ashcroft says.

Another key difference is that Cornwall Council and BT have each pledged £1m towards marketing their service, enabling a big campaign to drive take-up including roadside adverts in newly-connected areas.

“We want to create a real buzz about this,” Mr Ashcroft says.

In South Yorkshire, however, no marketing at all is being undertaken by the local authorities or by Thales.

Instead, advertising has been left to the internet retailers who sign up to sell the product to customers. But with only a handful of small, local firms on board, little has taken place.

So could Digital Region have avoided its difficulties by choosing a partner which already had internet retailers signed up to sell and market the service?

Digital Region chief executive David Carr says the original project planners back in 2005 “may have been too far ahead of their time to contemplate that”.

He believes Cornwall’s scheme is functioning well mainly because BT is a partner rather than a rival, and is therefore ensuring things run smoothly.

“You have to remember that BT basically make the rules for themselves,” he says. “Cornwall is going with the people that essentially write the rulebook.”