Lancashire's bid for £5m rural broadband lifeline

The Broadband for the Rural North Ltd
The Broadband for the Rural North Ltd
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Lancashire’s rural communities isolated from superfast broadband could be handed a £5m lifeline.

County Council leaders have agreed to press ahead with a programme targeting the county’s “hard to reach” areas.

The link-up is expected to create a major boost for the region’s rural economy and has been welcomed by business leaders.

Babs Murphy, chamber of commerce chief executive said superfast broadband is an “engine of job creation, a facilitator of educational and a means of shrinking the distances between isolated communities.”

The move will see County Hall bid for £3m worth of funding from the European Union, a last ditch attempt before the UK leaves the alliance in March next year.

The remaining £2m will be found from the local authority’s budget although there is an “intention to attract private sector contributions to support delivery”, according to council documents.

At a meeting of the ruling cabinet on Thursday, cabinet members were informed initial stages of a county rollout programme has delivered superfast speeds to 136,000 premises.

And stage two will deliver a further 11,283 by the end of this year.

However, an estimated further 17,000 properties will remain isolated and fall outside any commercial plans, the council has said.

The EU funding is hoped to come from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development with a focus on areas not included in commercial plans for the rollout of superfast internet connections.

These include vast swathes of north Preston, Ribble Valley, Chorley and West Lancashire that could be otherwise left on the “wrong side of the digital divide”.

A report reads: “Enhanced digital connectivity has the potential to address inherent issues with the rural economy and businesses such as distance from market. Improved broadband speeds will support the take up of new and more productive processes and support increases in business start-ups.”

“The only body in Lancashire eligible to apply for European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development Superfast Broadband call is the county council as lead local body for Broadband Delivery UK, the government’s agency for overseeing the improvement of digital connectivity across the country.

“Accessing European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development resources will facilitate increased coverage and increased speeds for businesses in our harder to reach and more isolated rural areas.

“By their very nature these areas tend to be more expensive to deliver to and are also more likely to have poor mobile phone (4G) connectivity and be outside commercial plans.

“The areas eligible for funding will be those not included in any commercial superfast broadband plans (‘white’), not included in any planned public delivery and are within the defined rural area for support designated by the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs.”

County Coun Michael Green, Cabinet member for economic development, environment and planning, said: “For local businesses, broadband connects them with new customers and opens up new markets, and creates new jobs for local residents. It also reduces the difference between companies, giving them a more level playing field.

“If our bid for funding is a success, it will bring increased coverage and increased speeds in harder to-reach and more isolated rural areas.

“These areas tend to be avoided by commercial providers due to cost, and are more likely to have poor mobile phone 4G service connectivity.

“While this scheme is mainly aimed at helping business, superfast broadband in rural areas provides important connections for people and access to services that they couldn’t find locally.”

‘Growth plans stifled’

Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North & Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce said: “There are many businesses operating in rural Lancashire who continue to be denied access.

“As a grassroots organisation in the county, we know very well the struggles that these businesses face in particular without the fundamental tools which are available to their competitors. Some businesses are reporting that growth plans are being stifled which would bring much needed employment opportunities to the locality.

“Superfast broadband is an engine of job creation, a facilitator of educational and a means of shrinking the distances between isolated communities. This initiative is to be welcomed and we applaud the efforts of Lancashire County Council to roll out superfast broadband access into the rural areas of Lancashire.”

‘We need more bandwidth’

Dr Gail Burton’s company School of Stitched Textiles provides a distance learning service that has been “left in limbo” because of their poor broadband connection.

Based in rural West Lancashire, staff have found posting a 10-minute tutorial video can take several hours.

And plans by commercial internet providers to improve connections in the area have frustratingly stalled.

She said: “We have been going for 20 years and over that time it has changed from students sending in work through the post to submitting in digital forms. Now we are doing online tutorials and that needs much more bandwidth than just sending and receiving e-mails, for example.

“We have found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the level of interaction that is now required.”

“Superfast broadband would make a massive difference, we are planning to expand - textiles is a niche market, it is rarely taught in schools anymore and night schools are not as available as they once were, so we’re looking to offer more online courses. But we have been left in limbo with some plans.”

‘Vitally important’

Launched in 2011 by a volunteer group, the Broadband for the Rural North Ltd (B4RN) initiative has seen thousands of properties in rural areas in north Lancashire linked up with hyper-fast connections.

Founding member Christine Conder MBE said it is “vital” for rural communities to have access to superfast - or even quicker - connections. She said: “It is vitally important, that’s why we’ve done all this work. Whether it be elderly people, schools and farms getting connected, we’re making it happen.

“It keeps growing and growing like a spider’s web. Once one village has the connection then neighbouring residents see what it’s like and want to be involved. The company had connected more than 3,200 as of June last year and operates by asking residents to become shareholders in the structure that, as a community benefit society, can never be bought by a commercial operator and its profits can only be distributed in the communities that they operate. We have connections that would be fast enough to serve a whole city serving one household, we’re future-proofed.”