Rural firms get high speed hoist

Rural firms get high speed hoist

High speed broadband is the life blood of the modern business and it looks as though our rural areas could be about to get a transfusion, as Peter Jackson reports.

Lazy Grace has a problem.

It is a highly successful creative branding and web design company based in East Newtown, just outside Rothbury with 10 employees and big name national and international clients, such as pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKlein and a Canadian petroleum consultancy.

But, while its beautiful rural location brings many advantages, it does have its drawbacks.

Ian McAllister account manager says: “As a modern, forward thinking design agency who operate predominantly within the internet arena, it is of huge frustration to both us and our clients when the speed of our connection is so slow that it takes twice as long to upload websites, download images and perform even the smallest of jobs.

“We took the decision to locate our offices in Rothbury rather than Newcastle for a number of reasons: we wanted to retain the business’s rural base in the place where it started, we wanted to be able to cycle to work through some of the most beautiful countryside in the world and we wanted the quality of life that Northumberland offers.

“In an industry that claims to think differently, we are actually forced to do so. The road networks can be fickle, depending on the weather and recruitment is often a lengthy process.

“So why oh why do we have to campaign for an acceptable internet speed when the rest of the country gets it as standard? We market regional businesses on an international platform and have produced promotional videos that have gone viral. We sometimes wonder how much more we could do with a faster internet speed.’’

But now Lazy Grace and other rural businesses throughout the North East can raise two cheers or heave a small sigh of relief.

The EU competition commissioner looks as though he is to approve the UK’s state funded rural roll out of fast broadband.

The EU had feared that because all the bids so far had been won by BT that the scheme broke competition rules.

Councils cannot begin projects until the full EU approval is given but that is now expected to happen soon.

This is particularly welcome in Northumberland where the programme inorthumberland qualifies for £7m of state aid. This will be matched by the county council and, with further funds from the private sector, will provide a pot of about £21m to roll out fast broadband.

By March it will have its delivery partner and, by the summer of 2015 nine tenths of the premises in the county will have access to broadband with speeds of up to 20MB.

However, before the rural communities in the county put the champagne on ice, it is worth pointing out that given the nature geographical of Northumberland, 90% of the premises covers only about a third of the county and many of the rest – some 20,000 - will not be included.

There is a commitment to give the rest of the county speeds of 2MB and then to get fast broadband to the that last 10%.

Stephen Gray, broadband programme director for Northumberland County Council says: “We need more money and we have been pushing hard and lobbying for it. There is broad political consensus and everyone thinks that it’s a good idea and recognizes its importance to the local economy.’’

As a result of that lobbying it hopes to access Defra funding which will roll out broadband to about a quarter of the last 20,000 premises and is trying to get cash from ERDF for the rest.

For Northumberland this is important for social inclusion, with one in five of the county’s population never having been on the internet, and for the transformation of public sector services. But, most important, it matters for the economy. Gray points to research which indicates that those SME’s which have transaction-enabled websites are able to grow five times faster than those that have not.

He says: “Those that aren’t are really going to be left behind. You have got to have digital just to stand still.’’

He also points to research indicating that fast broadband could create 1,700 jobs in the county, which is almost three times the number lost with the demise of its biggest employer Alcan.

Likewise County Durham has its Digital Durham programme by which nearly £8m of government money will be matched by European, council and commercial sector funds. Private sector plans will extend next generation broadband to only 40% of homes and businesses in the county and Gateshead.

In the words of Mark Stephenson, policy adviser the North East Chamber of Commerce: “We think it’s hugely important for all businesses, not just the niche businesses. In our rural areas the tourism business contributes more than £3bn to the North East economy every year and those businesses are becoming particularly reliant on the internet to market themselves in world markets.’’