Rural leaders have welcomed government plans to speed up internet connections in the countryside – but warned that they must go further.
Every community will have access to super-fast broadband by 2015 under plans outlined by the government. Some £830m will be made available over seven years as the UK strives to create Europe’s best broadband network.
The private sector will deliver super-fast broadband to two thirds of the country. Rural areas unable to attract private sector investment will receive public funds to build a “digital hub” with fibre-based internet connections.
The hubs will act as central digital points in each community, with high-speed connections to the nearest exchange. Working with local providers, communities will then be responsible for extending the network to individual homes.
DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman said: “Rolling out superfast broadband is probably the single most important thing we can do to ensure the sustainability of our rural communities in the 21st century and end the digital divide.”
Reliable internet access was vital for business and education, said Mrs Spelman. It would help to promote social inclusion and improve life in rural areas right across the country, she added.
The Country Land and Business Association said it welcomed the announcement. But it called for empty property relief from business rates to be extended indefinitely to premises where broadband was not available.
CLA deputy president Harry Cotterell said he was concerned that rural business premises without broadband would not attract tenants. It was hard to let out premises where broadband couldn’t be installed.
“The ‘leap-frogging’ from rural hubs apparently being proposed to help rural communities receive fast broadband is something the CLA has been advocating for years. However, we would like to see more detail on these plans.”
The government should provide grants to attract investment in rural broadband infrastructure. “Every support should be given to rural communities to make sure their homes and businesses can afford to enter the digital age.”
But the Countryside Alliance said the provision of public funds for “digital hubs” in particularly remote areas provided reassurance that rural communities would not be overlooked in broadband delivery.
For too long, many rural communities had not had access to decent broadband connections at the same speeds as those enjoyed by urban people, said alliance chief executive Alice Barnard.
“People in the countryside do not ask for special treatment, but they do deserve a level playing field.” Super-fast broadband would aid small businesses, service providers and the educational needs of rural people.