Fury in the Broadband Dead Zone; DIGITAL BRITAIN FACES COMMUNICATIONS BREAKDOWN AS RURAL BUSINESSES ARE CUT OFF
Byline: SARAH BRIDGE Additional reporting by Kathryn Snowdon
GETTING through a bitter winter has been tough enough for farmer Steve Roberts, but as he prepares for the lambing season he has been hit by a problem that is plaguing many rural businesses - the failure to establish a fast and efficient broadband internet connection.
It is vital to Steve, 26, because by law, every one of the cattle on his Shropshire farm needs a 'passport' if it is moved to an abattoir - and applications have to be made online. As a business owner he will soon have to file VAT returns online and as chairman of the local Young Farmers' Club he relies on his computer to send countless documents.
'We may be farmers but we do a lot of our work online,' says Steve, who runs the 250-acre farm with his father, George, 61.
'Applying for cattle passports for every single animal will take forever with a dial-up connection and there's no way I'll be able to do my work with the Young Farmers without broadband. I'll probably have to step down.'
In this part of Shropshire, the broadband connection used by hundreds of homes and businesses for the past three years is about to be unplugged. QI Comm, the company that provides the service, says it is not economically viable and is pulling out at the end of March.
The local residents are outraged. Polly Smith, 62, lives in Clun Forest, Shropshire, and has worked as a parish clerk for 17 years, most recently from home. She has now reluctantly decided to retire when the broadband service is axed.
'I find my job very interesting but I deal with so many planning documents and consultation materials that I just wouldn't able to do it without broadband,' she said. 'Many people around here will be lost without broadband and it must devalue your property being in an area without it.'
Philip Dunne, Conservative MP for nearby Ludlow, is chairman of the All-Party Group on Rural Services and has been inundated with complaints.
'Broadband has enabled remote areas to generate business activity,' he said. 'This is devastating for businesses who rely on broadband and we are trying to help people cope with this.'
ROBERT HUMPHREYS, who lives in Chapel Lawn and is secretary of the influential All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, which scrutinises the Licensing Act, said: 'It's been a complete shambles.
'Millions of pounds have been dished out by the regional development agency to private contractors to build the network, but there was no thought for how running costs were to be met.'
Advantage West Midlands (AWM), the development agency for the area, invested [pounds sterling]869,000 in the QI Comm project out of a total [pounds sterling]2.3 million that it has spent on rural broadband.
Humphreys is seeking a meeting with Dunne to ask if the National Audit Office could look into the deal. 'This is public money that has been spent here and it certainly hasn't met its objectives.'
Charles Grant, operations director of QI Comm, told Financial Mail that the service was being withdrawn because 'it hasn't been economically viable'. …