Leading the way again on superfast broadband

The county council is to set up a digital company, which will oversee a capital budget of £25million, to manage the roll-out of superfast broadband.

In what is thought to be another national first in Northumberland’s quest for high-speed internet, this company will be responsible for all the different strands of the broadband programme.

This includes the main BDUK Government funding of around £7million, for which the procurement is being concluded at the moment.

This is being matched by a similar amount from the county council over the next three years and the roll-out is set to begin in May.

Other money in the pot includes funding from the European Regional Development Fund, assumed match funding from the supplier, Defra funding (as in Coquetdale and Felton) and money set aside for the loans scheme to attract wireless providers, which is also in the final stages of procurement.

This month, the council’s executive agreed to set up the digital company under the auspices of its development company Arch to ensure it ‘retains a focus on economic growth’.

Members also agreed to extend the funding of the broadband team, whose initial short-term funding is coming to an end.

An extra £1.77million will be allocated for the period from April this year until September 2015.

The aim is that this vehicle will be much more flexible as the roll-out begins and also that it can ‘act as a conduit to attract new and wider investment from companies looking to invest into the digital economy’.

The council will retain 100 per cent ownership of the company which will have full accountability to the council’s decision-making structures.

A Joint Digital Programme Board, meeting every two months or so, will be set up with members from the council, supplier and any other major commercial partners.

This new company, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, follows the creation of a loans scheme to encourage small and medium enterprises (SMEs) offering wireless satellite broadband or other alternative technologies to come into the county, also a national first.

The county’s iNorthumberland project has long been concerned about the final 10 per cent of the population, covering 60 per cent of the county’s area, for which there may not be funding for the fibre-optic roll-out. The £1.3million loans scheme is one way to try to address this.

l Following the announcement of the five winning bidders to deliver 4G mobile internet services, the Countryside Alliance has called for a clear and swift schedule for delivery for rural areas amid fears the city markets will be served first. The promise is that almost the whole UK population will be able to receive 4G services by the end of 2017.

Executive chairman Barney White-Spunner said: “The countryside has been lagging behind urban areas for far too long when it comes to mobile signal, not only disadvantaging them socially, but economically.”