High-speed internet plan delayed as talks drag on

THE launch of a publicly-funded scheme to bring high-speed broadband to homes and businesses across South Yorkshire has been delayed as negotiations drag on with internet firms.

Bosses in charge of the local authority-owned South Yorkshire Digital Region project say they are "in the final stages" of contract talks with a number of internet providers to offer next-generation internet speeds across the county, but have been unable to hit their planned launch date of this month.

Digital Region is a ground-breaking 100m scheme to bring super-fast internet speeds of at least 25mb/s to 97 per cent of the region by mid-2012, offering benefits such as high-quality video streaming and conferencing and the ability to download films and music in seconds.

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Funded with EU money plus loans and grants from all four South Yorkshire councils and regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, the project will involve laying nearly 500 miles of fibre optic cables under South Yorkshire.

Work began last summer, and project organisers had expected the first addresses to begin using the service this month.

But while the construction project is on schedule, Digital Region bosses have so far been unable to finalise deals with internet service providers (ISPs) such as BT and TalkTalk to sell the high-speed broadband packages to their customers.

A statement released by Digital Region said these negotiations were at "an advanced stage" and should be finalised "in the very near future".

It said: "Digital Region originally announced its super-fast broadband network would be available to potential users – be them business or residential – by March 2010.

"The network build is on schedule and many areas in South Yorkshire already have the capability to connect and begin reaping the benefits of the guaranteed 25mb service.

"The last stage of this process is for ISPs to sign up to provide the network capabilities. Advanced negotiations are taking place between ourselves and a number of ISPs. We hope and expect this will be finalised in the very near future."

Council leaders at Doncaster, Barnsley, Sheffield and Rotherham were warned when they embarked on the project that it carried a high financial risk, but that profits from the scheme ought to provide sufficient income to repay their loans, which in turn is dependent on sufficient take-up among ISPs.

But Digital Region business development manager Richard Jepson said the current delay was no cause for concern.

"There have been no problems at all," he said. "All I can say is we are basically in the final stages of negotiations. We had said we would give people an update in March, and that's what we're doing."

Asked if the service should be available by the summer, Mr Jepson said: "Summer should be quite achievable. But with contractual negotiations it is a case of 'how long is a piece of string?'"