OPINION: Superfast Rothbury

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.

Ahead of the switch-on of Rothbury’s superfast broadband scheme next Monday, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson shares his views on the importance of better connectivity in rural areas.

The small, rural town of Rothbury, in Northumberland is getting an early Christmas present; a superfast broadband connection. It is the first recipient of the Government’s Rural Community Broadband Fund to help hard to reach areas such as Rothbury get superfast broadband.

The community worked very hard for several years to get this. Now it’s being delivered three months early.

It’s a prime example of how broadband can bridge the gap between urban and rural businesses. A decent internet connection has the power to overcome social isolation to a greater extent even than the canals and railways of the 19th century, transforming business prospects and creating more rural jobs. It’s an exciting time in government as we roll out broadband across the country.

I’ve seen the difference that broadband has made to the lives of families and businesses in rural areas like Rothbury, I have also heard about the difficulties people have without it. For some small businesses, like Jon Monks who runs Shepherds Walks, a tourism business, it was the deciding factor on where to locate. He moved to the centre of town to take advantage of the new connection. In an industry where he deals primarily with online bookings, having a reliable and fast connection speed is key to improving his bottom line.

For the 370 properties who will benefit from the switch-on, it means faster access to services and a chance to improve their businesses. For households, it will allow them to enjoy leisure activities such as iPlayer and games which other homes take for granted. The Rothbury project will give a total of 1,537 homes and businesses access to superfast broadband.

While this is great for Rothbury, what does it mean for rural areas in other parts of the country? It means broadband is on its way for you too. The Government, local authorities, and devolved administrations are together investing over £1billion to further extend the benefits of broadband to rural parts of the country. While the current programme will ensure that 90 per cent of the country has access to superfast speeds and standard broadband in remaining areas, the Government recently announced an extra £250million investment to extend superfast coverage to 95 per cent of premises by 2017. Together with the industry, we are exploring how to expand coverage further, using more innovative fixed, wireless and mobile broadband solutions, to reach at least 99 per cent of premises in the UK by 2018.

That’s going to make us the best-connected country in Europe, which gives us a huge edge in the global race wherever you are in the country.

A recent study revealed that for every £1 the Government is investing in broadband, the UK economy will benefit by £20. It also indicated that 89 per cent of the benefits will be in areas outside London and the South East of England with rural areas set to benefit most.

As someone who has lived in a rural area for most of my life, I know there have been concerns with broadband roll-out. We’ve been working with the private sector in order to deliver a comprehensive service, and roll-out is now speeding up.

Next year will be about superfast Britain. Currently about 10,000 premises a week are being connected across the UK, and as this rolls out it will be about 40,000 a week by next summer. That’s 40,000 lives changing every single week across the whole country.

Broadband is genuinely life-changing; not just for people who want to do business or shop online, but also for those affected by the challenges of living in a rural area. People can be educated online, receive healthcare online and receive their CAP payments online.

We created the Rural Community Broadband Fund to provide superfast broadband to businesses and communities in the most rural parts of the country who need it most urgently. I’m keen that rural businesses don’t lose out on lucrative contracts because their broadband is too slow. Broadband is about connecting people, not driving a wedge between the haves and the have-nots.It is truly an exciting time to see how our investment will benefit those in rural locations grow their business and narrow the digital divide.