'U-turn' needed on rural broadband roll-out policy: theparliament.com


By Phil Bennion
19th September 2013


We have to remember that form filling and VAT returns, as well as applications for funding for renewable energy projects all now take place online

Phil Bennion

EU funding for promoting rural broadband connection is in danger of being wasted, warns Phil Bennion. Internet access with at least reasonable broadband capability has now become not just an optional extra but an essential component for modern communities in the space of a few short years. Perhaps later than we should have done, the EU commission and the UK government began a programme to roll out improvements last year.

Setting a target of a transformation in broadband in the UK by 2015, the government allocated ‘ 630m in the current spending review period to stimulate commercial investment to roll out high-speed broadband in rural communities. BDUK were set up to manage the rural programme, with councils and the devolved administrations responsible for individual projects. The declared ambition was superfast broadband to at least 90 per cent of premises in the UK and universal access to basic broadband of at least 2Mbps.

In England, including some counties in my regional constituency of the West Midlands, the process has run into controversy, while the computing and communications press are very critical of a bidding process that means only BT seems capable of winning contracts. In some counties, such as Herefordshire, the view was taken that a reasonably fast broadband of 24Mb should be rolled out to all rural properties. However, Shropshire adopted a different strategy of providing superfast broadband at 60Mb to 80Mb to around 90 per cent of properties, leaving the remainder with current speeds of around 2Mb.

The latter target might have seemed a reasonable safety net a few years ago, but not any more. Not surprisingly, the minority tend to live in very remote rural locations such as farms or rural businesses, where mobile reception is often an issue so ‘internet sticks’ using mobile broadband are virtually useless. Residents are not happy, and protest meetings in remote villages such as Clun near the border with Wales have seen 100 people packed in the village hall.

In my view the clear purpose of the EU funding in the process is to connect rural properties to decent levels of broadband and the strategy of the kind being deployed in Shropshire simply does not deliver upon the identified need. As a farmer myself, I know that my own 6Mb connection is inadequate for the needs of doing all that I need to fulfil government requirements, particularly when speeds crash to around 1Mb for parts of the day. For modern applications and to meet statutory requirements, farms and other rural businesses need speeds of at least 10Mb.

I hope this decision can be reviewed by Shropshire council to ensure everyone gets an adequate service. We have to remember that form filling and VAT returns, as well as applications for funding for renewable energy projects all now take place online, as do consultations and planning applications and submissions. A policy which gives a first class service to some, but a useless service to the rest is not fit for purpose.

It will also be just as costly to connect the remaining properties when this is eventually deemed necessary.

The unavoidable conclusion will be that the EU money was wasted as the money will have been spent leaving the task incomplete.

A U-turn is required before it is too late.

Phil Bennion is a member of the European parliament.

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