Speeding Up the Process; Both Telecoms Giant BT and the Government Have Recently Pledged Large Sums of Money to Bring Broadband to the Areas of the UK That the Market Can't Reach. Ahead of a Seminar on Rural Broadband in Newcastle, JOHN HILL Learns What This Means for Rural Communities in the North East

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THE North East might not be able to enjoy the benefits of a wider A1 for a little while yet, so the internet could well be the best high-speed route to get goods, services and customers to businesses and residents in the region.

We've been promised that the online world will increasingly help us to work from home more effectively, shop more intelligently, interact with our council or our doctor and do business with more people.

However, the shot in the arm this could provide for the economy is less effective if the medicine passes through our veins at the speed of, say, the Government on plans to widen the A1. As a result, both BT and the government have been making statements for a while about investment in broadband infrastructure, with a particular focus on providing for those areas that are often left with the internet's version of the horse and cart.

Last year, BT announced it was investing pounds 2.5bn to bring superfast broadband into two thirds of UK homes, but said it would require government support to probe into the more remote areas of the country.

New Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt obliged at the tail end of the year by putting pounds 830m on the table in a bid to give the UK the fastest broadband system in Europe by 2015.

The Government wants to create a "digital hub" in every community by the end of the parliament, a move which Rural Affairs Secretary Caroline Spelman said at the time was "probably the most important thing we can do to ensure the sustainability of our rural communities in the 21st century".

Councils are being invited to bid for money from this pot, and the selected schemes will be announced in May. The counties with the most severe need will be given some money to address their challenges, and will be able to enter into partnerships with broadband providers to put their solutions into action.

However, this doesn't necessarily mean all parties can put a tick in the box marked "broadband" and move on.

Hilary Talbot at the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University highlighted the need to span the "broadband gap" between rural communities and cities in a paper last year, and says counties and communities will need to look at innovative solutions to maximise the coverage they can provide.

She says: "Rural voices are increasingly being heard, but it's still early days because the county-level authorities are having to do local plans and it's a finite amount of money which is going to need matching.

"The issue that always comes up is that it's just the final third that aren't getting it, but in Northern rural communities, it isn't just a third. Even with the investment, quite how far the money will go is questionable. It's pretty clear people in some of the more remote areas are not going to get this service as part of this finance, so there's a lot of thinking being done on how to get access to these areas, particularly through communities doing it themselves."

The issues being faced by rural communities will be discussed at the Rural Broadband seminar on March 15 at the Centre for Life in Newcastle. The seminar is being run by the CRE-managed Northern Rural Network, and will feature talks from Robert Ling of the government body Broadband Delivery UK, BT managing director Bill Murphy, local broadband study talks by Hilary Talbot and Ranald Richardson and community case studies such as Teesdale's Digital Dale and North Yorkshire's NYnet.

Statistics circulated by government suggest more than 70% of UK households have broadband, and nearly half have access to a "superfast" service of 50 megabit per second. …


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