Julian Sturdy: Villages left behind by superfast broadband

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THE Government’s investment in superfast broadband is, to my mind, one of their greatest and most important achievements in this Parliament, yet sometimes it does not get the plaudits it deserves.

It has by no means been an easy task. It has required huge investment from the Government, totalling roughly £1.6bn.

All the hard work and commitment has been worth it. The recent findings from the UK broadband impact study reveal that for every £1 the Government invest in broadband, the UK economy will benefit by £20.

Take-up of superfast broadband in North Yorkshire is outpacing the national average by a considerable margin. It also demonstrates that there is latent demand for superfast broadband in the rural areas around north Yorkshire and York.

The achievements of Superfast North Yorkshire are remarkable given that it is dealing with one of the country’s most rural counties. The county’s rurality, however, also has its drawbacks.

Although I have no doubt that Superfast North Yorkshire will meet its 90 per cent coverage target well before the rest of the country, I remain concerned that there is a deepening digital divide between the 90 per cent and the 10 per cent who appear to be being left behind by phase one of the roll-out.

I see the divide first hand in my constituency. Communities such as Haxby, Wigginton, Dunnington and Elvington are already enjoying the benefits of superfast speeds, which are coming soon to areas such as Wheldrake. Even small, quiet villages in my constituency, such as Rufforth and Stockton-on-the-Forest, have recently had their cabinets upgraded, yet there remain a number of small communities that are sadly too far from the local cabinet to benefit. Those communities include Askham Bryan, Askham Richard, Hessay, Acaster Malbis, parts of Naburn and Holtby to name a few.

A constituent of mine from Askham Bryan informs me that the maximum download speed he can obtain is 1.2 megabits per second, which is typical of the rest of the village. He says: “1.2 mbps permits basic web usage such as email and relatively slow browsing. However, any attempt to stream data-hungry applications such as live TV are not possible. Multiple users online at the same time in the same household also seriously compromises the performance of even basic applications.”

My constituent relocated to Askham Bryan from London without moving jobs, under the presumption that the investment in broadband in the region would enable him to access facilities such as web-based video conferencing, which have become the norm for many and would suit the flexible working arrangements that he has put in place for himself.

In the specific case of Askham Bryan, it is increasingly likely that other technologies, such as fixed wireless, 4G or satellite broadband, will need to be deployed to provide the village with the speeds it needs and deserves.

The parish council has contacted independent wireless broadband providers, which have explained that the technology is available to the village and is relatively simple to implement. The lack of certainty on the future direction of the roll-out, however, has prevented the parish council from going any further.

That point is important because the wireless broadband providers appear to be willing to invest their time and money if there is a chance that BT will subsequently upgrade the village’s cabinet. As such, much greater clarity is needed on the future of the roll-out so that communities on the wrong side of the digital divide are able to plan their next steps based on certainties rather than possibilities.

Superfast North Yorkshire has successfully pulled together a further £8m for the project to extend phase one of the roll-out, which will potentially increase coverage to between 92 per cent and 93 per cent of the county.

Given the pace of the roll-out in North Yorkshire and the European regulations that are in place, the additional pot of money will not get Superfast North Yorkshire past the summer of 2015 before its hugely successful programme comes to a grinding halt.

All that will be left is a wait for the next tranche of Government funding for phase two. Given the complexities of procurement, planning and the roll-out, it would be a tremendous shame for Superfast North Yorkshire to have to kick-start the roll-out again in 2016.

During a 12-month shutdown Superfast North Yorkshire would, due to its own success, lose many of the skills it has built up.

As such, I would like to add a further call on the Government to provide greater clarity over the future of the roll-out so that those communities left behind by the digital divide can plan ahead for how they will try to bridge it.

*Julian Sturdy is the Conservative MP for York Outer who spoke in a Commons debate on rural broadband. This is an abridged version of his speech.