Mixed reaction to £12million rural broadband funding in Northumberland

Northumberland County Council has welcomed a £12million funding boost for rural broadband - but its benefit to the most remote communities is in doubt.

By Ben O'Connell
Wednesday, 24 July, 2019, 16:45
Picture c/o Pixabay

The North of Tyne Combined Authority made a bid to the Government earlier this year for investment from its Local Full Fibre Networks Programme.

Northumberland County Council leader Peter Jackson described it as ‘fantastic news for the county’ and both he and the North of Tyne Mayor, Jamie Driscoll, have said that it will mean that rural Northumberland ‘will have better connectivity than most UK city centres’.

Coun Jackson added: “Both here in Northumberland and across the combined authority, we recognise that having widely-available, high-speed, affordable and reliable connectivity to businesses and residents is crucial in maintaining our economic competitiveness and achieving social inclusion.

“This upgrade to our infrastructure in the county is a building block for higher broadband speeds to many other communities across our county and doing this will have a much-wider long term impact.”

The funding will deliver gigabit-capable, full-fibre connectivity to 313 public buildings via the Northumberland Gigabit Project, which is due to be completed by early 2021.

But Coun Steven Bridgett, whose Rothbury ward includes the rural Coquet Valley, said: “This will benefit absolutely no one who doesn’t already have superfast broadband. So all of those residents and businesses who currently have less than 2mbps connections, never mind 24mbps connections, will still be absolutely no further forward after this money has been spent.

“This is because of one plainly obvious reason, those areas are in such remote locations that there are no public buildings.

“The council should instead be investing that money in trying to connect those difficult-to-reach residents and ensuring every household and business is able to crawl before some are given the opportunity to run.”

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Coun Bridgett’s concerns are in line with limitations that were admitted by council staff at a combined authority meeting earlier this month.

Steve Smith, Northumberland County Council’s digital design and delivery manager, told a scrutiny committee: “Disappointingly, because the investment through this is specifically limited to public-sector assets, there are areas in Northumberland where, for a number of reasons, there are not public-sector assets anymore.

“But anywhere we can get closer to is going to benefit. If we can get halfway there, we have still achieved that.

“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.”

Coun Jackson added that the £12million, which is expected to be matched by the three local councils and will be discussed at the combined authority’s cabinet meeting next week, is a ‘great step towards the vision of connecting every home and business in Northumberland’.

“Here in the county we pride ourselves on punching well above our weight in terms of embracing new technology and this is a real boost which will provide day-to-day benefits to thousands.”

But Coun Bridgett said: “If the funding of broadband continues down this path and pushed by officers at the North of Tyne and perhaps even the county council, who have no idea what truly rural actually is, we really are going to end up with a huge disparity in broadband quality across Northumberland.

“Again, this is a top-down, backwards-approach mentality, that just leaves more people in rural areas further isolated and left behind.”