Broadband deal puts country areas in line for economic boom

Julian Smith
Julian Smith
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YORKSHIRE’S rural communities are on the verge of a sweeping technological revolution akin to the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, as local authorities prepare to sign off a massive deal to bring super-fast broadband to great swathes of the countryside.

North Yorkshire County Council is putting the final touches to a £50m contract with a major telecoms firm that will see high-quality internet services delivered to the “overwhelming majority” of homes and businesses across North Yorkshire before the end of 2015.

Project managers add that they are “well on track” to meeting their long-term aim of providing 100 per cent coverage for the county a further two years down the line.

Politicians and experts are united in the view that widespread availability of super-fast broadband will spark a renaissance in rural areas which are currently struggling with little or no internet access at all.

“We are now on the brink of transforming the economic prospects for the northern part of our region,” said Skipton and Ripon Tory MP Julian Smith, who has spent two years lobbying for improved internet access for the area. “I believe this is the equivalent of the installation of the canals or the railways for our part of the world.”

Local economies are certain to be boosted as existing small businesses gain the opportunity to expand their markets and work more efficiently, while new and start-up firms are attracted to areas where previously they would not have been able to operate.

And the huge distances between the disparate communities should become less important as video-conferencing, working from home and accessing healthcare and social services online become the norm.

Gary Fielding, assistant chief executive at North Yorkshire County Council, said: “This is a massive event for North Yorkshire. It’s going to make a huge difference to an awful lot of people’s lives.”

In 2010 the council was chosen as one of the Government’s pilot areas for delivering next-generation broadband in rural areas, and handed £17.8m in grants.

Officers have secured a further £8.6m from the European Union, and have been locked in contract negotiations over recent months with two technology giants – BT and Fujitsu – who are bidding to take on the project.

Councillors have now chosen which of the two firms has won the contract to build the new fibre-optic underground cable network across North Yorkshire, with a formal announcement due later this month.

It is understood the company involved will invest approximately £25m of its own money over the next three years, bringing the total investment to around £50m.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of broadband coverage we can get as a result of this process,” Mr Fielding said. “The overwhelming majority of the county will get high-quality broadband by 2015.”

The council believes it will be the first of the Government’s six pilot areas to have its construction contract signed and sealed. Work will get under way within months – and the council’s aim is to then extend the new broadband network to every home and business in the county over the subsequent years.

“Our vision was to deliver 100 per cent coverage of high-quality broadband by 2017,” Mr Fielding said. “Given the discussions we’ve had with our bidders, we are confident we are well on track with that.”

The council believes the arrival of super-fast broadband will finally halt the decline of rural areas that has seen populations dwindle and local pubs, post offices, shops and other key services disappear.

“The future of these small villages is under threat,” Mr Fielding said. “When people move house now they want to know that broadband is available.

“If it’s not there then people don’t come to the village. People need it for their business, their kids need it for their homework. It’s about making our villages a more attractive place to come to.”

“High-quality internet access is essential, too, for hotels, B&Bs and campsites,” Mr Fielding added, highlighting the need to take bookings online and the growing expectation from customers that wifi access will be available during their stay.

“For our small businesses it is a real enabler – they are able to work differently and more efficiently than before,” Mr Fielding said.