THE Chief Secretary to the Treasury will today be told a Government broadband snub could leave almost a quarter of Northumberland households “left to die in the digital revolution”.
County internet campaigners say a £35m funding pot to improve connections falls £10m short of the amount needed to reach areas outside the major towns and villages.
Across the county, some 60% geographically would be left without the same connections offered in UK cities.
This, campaigners say, will see schools in the most rural areas left behind, while for businesses the situation facing them would increasingly lead to firms opting to relocate or set up away from rural areas.
Cabinet minister Danny Alexander, who will be in the region today alongside Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith, will be told that farmers and the rural elderly face being cut off from the modern world if the Government’s broadband strategy is not fully resourced.
Farm connection issues caused panic last year when the HMRC insisted that all farm VAT returns be completed online, leaving many struggling to meet deadlines.
Such is the desperation for better connections that families near Fontburn and towards Rothbury are to be asked to take part in a “build and benefit” scheme in which they dig their own cable trenches in order to lower the cost for BT, the front runner in the bid to deliver Northumberland’s £35m internet programme. If those volunteers do not come forward, the cost of replacing ineffective copper wires with fibre cables would be likely to prove too much for the private sector.
The extra £10m will ensure cables, and in some cases wifi and satellites, are available to give every premises 2MB minimum connectivity.
Using funds presently available, only the Tyne Valley around Hexham, the market towns in the south east of the county and the coastal area up to Amble and Alnwick would see investment in broadband.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, campaign director at Broadband for Northumberland, said some in Northumberland risked being left to fade away unless the extra funding was provided.
The Berwick Conservative said: “The reality is that unless we see somewhere like £10m more from the Government’s Broadband Delivery UK unit we can expect large parts of Northumberland to be completely left behind.”
In Fontburn campaigners are waiting to see if Mr Alexander will approve a separate fund to help improve Rothbury’s internet connections.
They will then enter into talks with whoever is picked as the internet provider, with landowners offering to help dig trenches.
Retired Louise Kirkwood is one of those in Fontburn looking to help.
She said: “If Rothbury gets good news today that would be a good start. We know one of the big issues for say, BT, is the manpower costs, so we, tenants and landowners and families, have offered to help where we can. We have no shortage of people here who know how to use tractors, that’s for sure.”
Mrs Kirkwood added: “We need to be connected because I’m not sure there’s much of a future for Northumberland without this. It is vital in so many ways. If you look at the generation that will soon retire, they have come to expect good internet connections, they will live elsewhere without that.”
Last night Sir Alan Beith said: “I am delighted that Danny Alexander is coming to Northumberland. He has taken a close interest in the needs of our area and I know he is eager to hear from residents and businesses about the importance of rolling out superfast broadband to rural communities.
“The iNorthumberland team at Northumberland County Council have been developing innovative ways to tackle to challenge of remote properties to cover the final 10% of residents who are not covered by the BDUK proposals and I hope these ideas could be shared with other parts of the country.”