Government rural broadband plans attacked as inadequate

 

Mary Collard: "It is a basic human right to be connected to the internet"

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We've all been there. You click on a web address, and the dreaded egg timer becomes stuck on the screen.

But Mary Collard would give anything just to have that dubious pleasure.

That's because the internet connection in her County Durham home is not just slow, it's non-existent.

For a few years she did have an unstable dial-up connection through the telephone.

That's now failed, and her attempts to get broadband have repeatedly foundered.

Laptop computer Broadband can be a lifeline for rural communities but many living there have a slow connection

More than a dozen BT engineers have come and gone, and none has managed to get her connected.

Mary does live in rural Teesdale, but not in the wilds. She's only seven miles from her nearest town.

Worst problems

She finds it incredibly frustrating. The lack of an internet connection forced her to give up her role with the parish council, and makes many everyday tasks impossible.

Start Quote

Everyone increasingly expects you to do things online these days, and just can't understand it when you can't”

End Quote Mary Collard Teesdale villager

She said: "You can't do internet shopping, pay bills, buy tickets, or file your tax returns. Everyone increasingly expects you to do things online these days, and just can't understand it when you can't. I think it's a basic human right to be able to access the internet."

This is a problem which affects more people than you might think.

More than 87,000 people in County Durham can't get a decent broadband connection.

And the problems don't stop there.

Carlisle has the worst connection problems in the country, with almost two thirds of people not having a decent service.

It is mostly rural areas that are struggling as you can see from the table below.

Top ten areas in North East & Cumbria for poor broadband

Parliamentary constituency Percentage in low-speed area

Carlisle

65%

Wansbeck

47%

North West Durham

46%

Berwick

41%

Penrith and the Border

41%

Copeland

41%

Richmond

40%

Blyth Valley

39%

Thirsk and Malton

38%

North Durham

38%

PDF download Full list of constituencies[4KB]

It's not just individuals who suffer, of course. Broadband is vital for attracting and retaining businesses and jobs in the countryside.

The government says it is doing something about it though.

It's set aside £530m to improve connections in the countryside.

That has helped people like Carol Bowe.

Start Quote

The Tory-led government's proposals will do nothing to halt the broadband divide across the UK”

End Quote Ian Lucas MP Shadow Business Minister

She runs a caravan park near Northallerton in North Yorkshire.

A year ago, she was spending hours struggling to send e-mails on a painfully slow connection.

Government funding

She decided to do something about it, and after getting the local community together, she's succeeded.

The caravan park and surrounding villages now have superfast 20Mbps broadband. Some of her guests now use it to video call friends across the world.

But as well as her own campaigning, it did also require some government funding to make it happen.

And while North Yorkshire and Cumbria have benefited from the £530m, County Durham has failed on two occasions to get anything out of the fund.

Now it's emerged the £530m will not be enough to achieve the government's broadband targets.

The Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt says another £530m will be needed from councils, the private sector and Europe to achieve its targets. It hopes then to provide superfast broadband to 90% of people by 2015.

'Brake on growth'
Mary Collard Mary Collard is sceptical about promises of improved broadband provision in her area

Labour says that's not good enough.

It says the government has already let down communities by pushing back plans to provide a basic universal 2Mbps service from 2012 to 2015.

Now it believes the Culture Secretary should be finding more money to ensure that everyone gets superfast broadband rather than a minimum service.

Shadow Business Minister Ian Lucas said: "The Tory-led government's proposals will do nothing to halt the broadband divide across the UK and will act as a brake on business growth across the country just when it is needed most."

And Hilary Talbot, from the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University, agrees 2Mbps won't be enough.

She said: "It's better than nothing of course, but for the vast majority of businesses, individuals and students in rural areas, it won't be enough to allow them to do what they will want and need to do."

Of course, the government says it has to be careful with public money, and it believes it's achieving more than Labour did on broadband by involving communities.

But Mary Collard is sceptical about promises from anyone.

She said: "I hope I'm still alive by 2015 to see it, but I won't hold my breath. I may have moved by then, because who wants to live in an area where you can't communicate properly with people?"

And that's the key. For many rural communities, their survival may depend on whether the government, councils and companies can get them connected.

 
Richard Moss Article written by Richard Moss Richard Moss Political editor, North East & Cumbria

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