A new up-to-£1million scheme is being launched to try to get Northumberland’s left-out homes and businesses connected to superfast broadband.
Coun Nick Oliver, the county council’s cabinet member for corporate services, said: “We are very serious about delivering broadband in rural areas in this administration.
“Large parts of the county are very rural and therefore the delivery of broadband is very difficult for physical and geographical reasons.”
The first phase of the iNorthumberland fibre roll-out with Openreach, which ended in December 2015, saw approximately 90 per cent of premises able to access superfast broadband, in line with the Government’s targets.
But the county missed the subsequent 2017 target for connectivity; as of December last year, 92.9 per cent of properties in Northumberland had access to broadband speeds of 24 Mbps or above compared to 95.76 per cent nationally.
At its meeting on Tuesday (March 12), the council’s cabinet agreed to launch a voucher scheme so that alternative suppliers to Openreach can access public funding to roll out superfast broadband services to areas not currently covered by existing plans.
The authority has made a further £2.2million available – mainly from savings within the first roll-out contract – to help bring superfast broadband to some of the most difficult-to-reach communities in the county, with £2million being allocated towards additional fibre coverage by Openreach.
The remaining £200,000 will now go towards the voucher scheme, which Coun Oliver said will allow ‘a bit more flexibility’, but the cabinet also agreed that if the scheme experiences high demand, then additional funding up to a maximum of £1million should be made available.
The report to councillors explained that the main benefit of a voucher-based approach is that it removes the need for a procurement exercise.
The funding is awarded to individual residents or businesses rather than a specific supplier and therefore issues such as state aid and procurement are
The individuals can then use their voucher with any of the approved suppliers, and can pool with neighbours where appropriate.
Council leader Peter Jackson said: “We haven’t been in a very productive relationship with Openreach. There are many smaller, more isolated communities that they are definitely not serving very well in our county.”
Coun Glen Sanderson added: “This does show leadership at a time when we need to be moving forward on this.
“This will help those people who have been so patient. If you live in a very rural area, you have just as much right to services that other people have.”
Responding to a query about the £1million figure, Coun Oliver said: “It’s a significant amount of money, but not enough to connect the rest of the county. This is just trying to to keep things rolling as quickly as possible.”
He confirmed that the council, backed by MPs, would continue to lobby the Government for more funding.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service