Northumberland rural communities missing out on 'superfast broadband', MPs warn

Northumberland residents contributed to a Commons report warning that remote communities are being denied good internet services

Broadband speeds in rural parts of Northumberland are struggling
Broadband speeds in rural parts of Northumberland are struggling

Small rural communities are being overlooked in the race to introduce super-fast broadband across the country, MPs have warned.

A Commons inquiry issued the finding after it was told by Northumberland residents that homes hard-to-reach areas were being left out of plans to transform UK broadband within three years.

Rural farms, businesses and homes must be included in the Government’s plans, said the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which includes North Tyneside Labour MP Mary Glindon, and South Shields Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck.

A new report cites evidence presented to the committee from the Fontburn Residents’ Association and Internet Project, set up by residents of the remote Fontburn valley in north Northumberland.

In a written report to the inquiry, the association said that telecom firms were accepting government grants designed to pay for the extension of super-fast broadband to remote areas but then “cherry picking” the locations where it was easier to provide services, leaving other households and businesses in the cold.

They said: “It is in these rural areas where people need access to fast and effective communications even more than in urban areas in order to keep working and to keep communities viable.

“Life is increasingly difficult for low income families in rural areas who already experience poor transport links and fuel poverty.

“We suspect that some political parties believe that rural areas are inhabited solely by the well-off who need no special assistance or support. This is certainly not the case in Northumberland.”

In a reference to the submission, the Commons committee warned: “For those affected, there is concern that coverage targets and deadlines are unclear, minimum speed requirements too slow and distribution of information at local level too poor.”

In their report, the MPs raised fears that a focus on improving access for most of the country may leave a minority with little or no ability to use key government services switching to online-only or mainly online delivery.

The Government has set out plans to “achieve transformation in broadband in the UK by 2017”, providing basic broadband at a speed of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) for all by 2016 and access to superfast broadband at a speed of 24 Mbps for 95 per cent of the UK by 2017.

Each local authority in England has been allocated funding, and county councils or local enterprise partnerships are responsible for ensuring services are provided. But in practice, BT has won all the phase one contracts from local councils to deliver the project, while phase two contracts are currently being discussed.

Committee chairman Anne McIntosh said: “People living in the hard-to-reach 5% of premises need the same access as the rest to online and digital services.

“There is a risk in the current approach that improving service for those who already have it will leave even further behind the rural farms, businesses and homes who have little or none.”

She added: “There is a fear that upgrading the majority who already have access to basic broadband is creating an even bigger gap between those with and those completely without broadband access.”

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokesperson said: “Government is on track to deliver access to superfast broadband to 95 per cent of the UK by 2017. Work is already in place to take superfast speeds to the final five per cent of the UK.

“By the end of this year, every home and business in the UK will be able to access a minimum broadband speed of 2MBs – the basic speed for surfing and carrying out online services.”

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