The independent commission tasked with looking at the challenges facing the county, is now calling on the Government to view reliable high-quality broadband provision as a basic human right, and essential service needed to sustain communities in a modern age.
Commissioner Dr Debbie Trebilco said: “Broadband and mobile technology need to be seen in exactly the same way as other essential utilities, like water and electricity. As a humanitarian right, to support mental and physical health, education and jobs.”
Hearing evidence on connectivity from a range of private and public sector broadband providers, commissioners said access to good-quality broadband had never been more important given the volume of home and remote working during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Commission chair, The Very Rev. Dean John Dobson, said there was an urgency at apolitical level to tackle this issue.
“We have a window of opportunity provided by this national crisis that cannot be missed,” he said.
During the session the eight commissioners also heard about the importance of a broader national approach to include more widely accessible incentive voucher schemes and toolkits.
The aim being to encourage community-led broadband programmes in remote areas.
They also heard North Yorkshire County Council had made “considerable progress” in securing access to broadband to large swathes of the county, although take-up in certain areas remained an issue.
Despite this however, the panel heard there were still around 49,000 people who have no broadband coverage in the county and the vast majority of these – nearly 38,000 – live in remote rural areas.
Robert Ling, assistant director for technology and change at North Yorkshire County Council, said provision of superfast broadband into the most rural communities should carry the same value as for urban areas.
“Rural areas can thrive if we can achieve a blend of digital connectivity which gives them similar access to those enjoyed by more urban areas.”
He went on to say the pandemic had demonstrated that with the right connectivity people can communicate across the globe. “So why not be based in North Yorkshire?” he said. But, Mr Ling warned, any investment in infrastructure must be coupled with investment in skills and access to technologies for people and businesses.
“The two must work together to make sure the benefits of the infrastructure can be realised.”
Dr Debbie Trebilco said the panel had heard in previous sessions about the importance of connectivity in unlocking the county’s potential.
While fellow commissioner, Prof Sally Shortall said the pandemic had shown what was possible with the right connectivity.
“Now – when so many national and regional departments and businesses are working remotely with many thousands of hours of virtual meetings undertaken daily – we can see the possibilities like never before for the county’s economy, education, health and wellbeing.”
Private sector provider, David Burns, MD of Boundless Networks, reported the pandemic had “doubled traffic” across the company’s infrastructure.
“Our night-time peak is now our day-time norm. It’s changed how we work and how we live.”
He also said, in his opinion, hybrid systems which are made up of what is appropriate for the location are the “only fast and economical way” to roll out superfast broadband into more remote areas.
“We need to make better use of what we have, including outdoor wireless technologies. Targeted local approaches can be really helpful in finding the right solution.”
The Very Rev. Dean John Dobson, said there was now a need to “seize the moment” and devolve more powers around access to funding and planning for infrastructure to local level so the rapid change needed to deliver the connectivity needed could be put in place.
“We must empower communities to work in a more dynamic way directly with providers. What we have heard is decisions on this matter would be more effective if made here in North Yorkshire.”
The importance of good and consistent broadband infrastructure across communities is also supported by the Local Enterprise Partnership. Chair David Kerfoot said bringing an end to digital disadvantage in rural areas, like North Yorkshire, is essential for economies and the communities they serve to thrive.