Sixteen market towns across North Yorkshire set to get free public wi-fi to help them compete with urban areas

Free public wi-fi is to be installed in the centre of as many as 16 market towns across rural North Yorkshire as part of a £3m investment to help the county compete with more urban areas.

North Yorkshire County Council says the scheme will be seen in towns "from Scarborough to Skipton" and is designed to draw people back to local town centres as a destination.

The huge increase in home working during the pandemic has prompted fears for the future of many town centres and civic leaders are looking at how they can offer a different experience for visitors and residents.

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Shops in Northallerton town centre. Picture by Gerard Binks. The huge increase in home working during the pandemic has prompted fears for the future of many town centres and civic leaders are looking at how they can offer a different experience for visitors and residents.

Further north in Stockton-on-Tees, the council wants to rip up the ailing shopping arcade and replace it with a riverside park three times the size of Trafalgar Square.

Public wi-fi can be found in popular public places like airports, coffee shops, malls, restaurants, and hotels and allows users to access the Internet for free.

Council bosses say installing the technology is an opportunity to investigate how it could be used to promote local shops and services, as well as offering opportunities for people with limited or no broadband at home to access vital local services and job opportunities.

In what leaders describe as "an important step towards rebalancing the relationship between urban and rural communities", the council is also introducing so-called 'smart places' technology into rural areas, and providing ultrafast fibre broadband to six business parks.

The extension of North Yorkshire’s local full fibre network programme, delivered by the County Council’s wholly owned delivery partner NYnet Ltd, will see the technology deployed to six business parks, benefiting up to 500 businesses.

The parks earmarked to receive the technology are likely to be in the districts of Ryedale, Hambleton, Richmondshire and Scarborough but the council says it would welcome an approach from any business park manager or owner interested in this opportunity.

'Smart places technology' allows businesses to make use of sensors and data to create new markets and products, potentially bringing digital benefits more usually seen in cities into rural areas.

Work is currently underway to finalise where and how the new technologies will be deployed and the plan is to have them in place by March 2022.

Funding to carry out the work comes from the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership as part of its allocation from the Government’s Getting Building Fund.

Greg White, the county council's Executive Member for Digital, said: “For the county to make best use of its natural assets, it must not just embrace digital connectivity but lead the way in rural applications of digital connectivity.

"Both the deployment of ‘smart places’ technology and extending the full fibre network will enable this to happen. It will be an important step towards rebalancing the relationship between urban and rural communities as well as unleashing the creativity and innovation we know exists here in the market place.”

David Dickson, Chair of the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership Infrastructure & Joint Assets Board, said: “Now, more than ever, it is vital that businesses and communities are benefitting from improved digital connectivity.

"It is a key part of plans for reshaping York and North Yorkshire’s economy, formed in response to Covid-19, as we strive for a greener, fairer and stronger future."