Connecting Northumberland: Bid to bring broadband under council control to improve access for rural communities

Northumberland County Council wants to take rural broadband provision into its own hands – and is calling on the Government to fund it.

By Ben O'Connell
Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 1:55 pm
Updated Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 2:34 pm
Picture c/o Pixabay
Picture c/o Pixabay

The local authority has unveiled plans to use its own skills and resources to connect isolated homes and communities across the county.

Council representatives, along with Hexham MP Guy Opperman, have met Digital and Broadband Minister Matt Warman, who has asked for a full business case, to be considered ahead of the Government’s budget.

The authority has been involved in a range of initiatives to try to ensure even the most remote communities have access to good broadband, but this would be the first time it would actually be doing the digging and installation to homes itself.

Coun Nick Oliver, Digital and Broadband Minister Matt Warman MP, and Guy Opperman MP.

Coun Nick Oliver, the cabinet member for corporate services, said: “It is one of those light-bulb moments when you start to think about how we connect some of our most rural homes to broadband, when major companies are unwilling or unable to link them up.

“Within the council, we already have in-house vast expertise in terms of planning, laying trenches, building infrastructure and IT.

“So rather than waiting for other organisations to develop longer-term solutions, we just want to get on with installing broadband and connecting communities – something that many of us just take for granted.

“As a council, we’re committed to a can-do approach and working to ensure everyone can benefit from key services and feel part of the wider community, wherever they live in the county.”

If the scheme is backed by the Government, work could begin this year. The funding required has not been revealed, with the authority ‘still working on detailed costings at this stage’.

Mr Opperman said: “Broadband is essential to homes and businesses in rural communities and faster speeds are vital.

“That’s why it was great to meet Digital and Broadband Minister Matt Warman MP with Coun Nick Oliver to talk about innovative new ideas to improve broadband roll-out across Northumberland; we are working hard to ensure no community gets left behind.”

This latest proposal will build on the £12million secured by the North of Tyne Combined Authority last summer from the Government’s Local Full Fibre Networks Programme to pay for the roll-out of fibre internet connections to more than 300 public buildings in rural parts of the county.

Council leader Peter Jackson and the North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, both said that it would mean that rural Northumberland ‘will have better connectivity than most UK city centres’, while critics pointed out that many of the county’s most remote areas no longer have any public buildings.

However, Steve Smith, the county council’s digital design and delivery manager, told a combined authority scrutiny committee at the time: “Not everywhere will benefit directly with full fibre, but any work we can do will reduce the cost of pushing it out into those communities.”

The Borderlands Inclusive Growth Deal is also committed to investing in digital infrastructure to improve broadband and mobile-phone signal in rural communities.