Housebuilders will be forced to commit to installing superfast broadband on new developments in Chorley before they will be granted planning permission.
And the move could even bring high-speed internet access to existing households in parts of the borough which are currently cut off from the fastest connections.
The policy is also poised to be adopted across Central Lancashire, as part of a review of the local plan for the region - meaning it could become a requirement for new developments in Preston and South Ribble.
Chorley Council’s overview and scrutiny committee heard that the cost of installing fibre in more sparsely populated areas meant that many communities had been left without it. Clayton-le-Woods councillor Greg Morgan told members: “Every door I bang on in my area, people complain about not having a fibre connection.”
And while the new planning condition will not bring fast fibre lines to every corner of Chorley, the council’s Director of Customer, Asim Khan, said it should yield a digital dividend for some residents.
“It’s a commercial decision - a fibre provider won’t install it unless they think they can sell the service to a few hundred households afterwards. If we’re dictating that fibre has to go in as part of a development, then you are going to see an expansion of the existing network,” Mr. Khan said.
It is hoped that the policy will see fibre connections become available beyond the borders of the new estates where they will be obligatory - because they will become more viable for providers to install over a wider area once the initial infrastructure is in place.
Meanwhile, work is also underway ensure that areas without housing developments in the pipeline are not abandoned to the kind of internet access more akin to the dial-up era. Chorley is now planning to bid for a grant from the government’s Local Full Fibre Network (LFFN) fund.
The authority will attempt to secure a share from a £200m pot set up last year to widen access to superfast broadband, which Asim Khan told members was now “a fourth utility” which residents relied upon.
The funding, expected to be allocated in tranches of £4.5m, would be used to bring faster connections to areas like Buckshaw. The council would own the fibre and could allow providers to “piggyback” on it to offer their existing services.
However, Mr. Khan admitted that, even if the council were successful in its LFFN bid, coverage would not be universal across Chorley. “Ultimately, it is down to the providers to make that happen and, if there is no commercial merit for them, it is going to be a difficult challenge,” he added.
One councillor was concerned that some companies were taking advantage of the digital desert in some parts of the borough by making promises to desperate customers - and then not fulfilling them.
“People are being advised that certain speeds are available and yet when they sign up to these providers, the service isn’t there,” Cllr Matthew Lynch told the meeting. “And people feel abandoned, because nobody will listen to them.”
And a digitally-minded committee member warned that the council needed to speed up its plans for fast internet - because they could soon be out of date. Christopher France, a former BT employee, forecast that fibre was not the future.
“The next stage is going to be 5G - it’s not going to be digging up a pavement and sticking a line underground. Cables are increasingly going to be a thing of the past,” Cllr France said.
However, the meeting heard that while the mobile connectivity offered by 5G might be sufficient for home use, the more intensive tasks undertaken by businesses and public services would require fibre cables for the foreseeable future.
But having digested the digital debate, a circumspect Cllr Morgan quipped that the best way to ensure faster speeds in his area seemed to be “to get somebody to build houses on the field behind my house”.
If the revised local plan for Central Lancashire is approved, planning conditions requiring the installation of fibre connections could be in place by late 2020.
CONNECTED FOR CHRISTMAS
Shoppers in Chorley town centre will be able to connect to wifi in time for their Christmas trips to Market Walk and the covered markets. The free service will be available from December and will be branded as “Check Out Chorley”.