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The lessons from Cornwall that could open up East Anglia’s 21st-century trade routes

PUBLISHED: 11:52 21 August 2017 | UPDATED: 11:36 22 August 2017

Professor John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, discusses digital work with a student. Credit: Owen Richards.

Professor John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts, discusses digital work with a student. Credit: Owen Richards.

Owen Richards

Beautiful rural scenery, a rugged coastline... and super-fast broadband? Prof John Last, chairman of the Digital Creative Industries group of New Anglia LEP, explains how a project from across the country could offer a pointer to Norfolk and Suffolk’s shared digital future.

Improved digital connectivity could unlock the potential of Norfolk and Suffolk's creative industries. Picture: Owen Richards. Improved digital connectivity could unlock the potential of Norfolk and Suffolk's creative industries. Picture: Owen Richards.

Professor John Last is chairman of the Digital Creative Industries group of New Anglia LEP and vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts.

Imagine a small industrial estate on the edge of a rural village – just a jumble of warehouses and factory units.

There is no rail line. No motorway for miles. But there is countryside all around and a beautiful coastline to explore.

Sounds familiar? A most unlikely place, you would think, for a world record in digital technology to be broken.

Prof John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts discusses digital work with a student. Credit: Owen Richards. Prof John Last, vice-chancellor of Norwich University of the Arts discusses digital work with a student. Credit: Owen Richards.

But one winter’s morning in 2012, a new global record for internet speed was set in the Cornish village of Threemilestone, near Truro.

The record was set at 10 gigabits of data per second (gbps) – or about a hundred times faster than the average household broadband at the time. That’s still far faster than many connections today.

The Threemilestone demonstration was a staging post in Cornwall’s progress over the last five years to becoming one of world’s most connected rural regions. A partnership of BT, Cornwall Council and the European Union has invested more than £130m in the county’s digital infrastructure since 2011.

Today, 95% of Cornish homes and businesses have access to superfast broadband. Plans are under way to reach 99% , tackling the hardest-to-reach places.

Cornwall’s reward has been economic, social and environmental.

Two thousand new jobs have been created. More than 2,500 existing jobs have been secured. Academics studying the impact of the Cornish project say the county’s superfast businesses have seen their turnover grow more substantially over the last five years than counterparts with slower internet connections. And the overall economic impact has been estimated at £186m.

That’s a major return on the public-private sector investment. Socially, more people are working at home and managing their hours around family life. New economic life is being breathed into dormitory villages.

Why does this matter? It’s a glimpse of a possible digital future for East Anglia. If one rural corner of Britain can boast better internet connectivity than many European cities, what ceiling should be set on our aspirations?

Look around East Anglia and you will see no shortage of will to take the digital lead.

In Suffolk, nine out of 10 homes now have access to high-speed broadband. By 2020, that figure should pass 98%. But that will still leave about 7,000 properties stuck in “not-spots” where fast digital connections do not exist.

In Norfolk, smart initiatives like WiSpire in Norfolk – supported by the Diocese of Norwich and Archant – are helping to connect villages that the fibre network has not yet touched.

And, for the last three years, Norwich has been designated as a Tech Cluster in the TechNation report: a signal of the city’s growing reputation as a hub of digital entrepreneurship. You’ll find a thriving digital creative community in Norwich, and an energetic start-up scene, supported by Norwich University of the Arts’ Ideas Factory Digital Incubation Centre, UEA’s Enterprise Centre, WhiteSpace, and others. This ecology has already given rise to some great new businesses in the world of digital design, moving image creation, user experience and the development and application of artificial intelligence.

And with each intake of students at NUA, we see more of the burgeoning talent who will become tomorrow’s highly-skilled workforce and start-up entrepreneurs. Build the infrastructure that supports their ambition and they will take root in Norwich and Norfolk.

Yet the common cry you will hear from companies large and small in every town and village is that a faster, reliable internet connection will help take their business forward.

The Better Broadband for Norfolk campaign has taken superfast from 42% of homes and businesses in 2012 to 80% and more. But the digital world turns quickly. Threemilestone’s 2012 speed record now looks ponderously slow.

Last year, BT’s team at Adastral Park at Martlesham Heath revealed they had sent data at more than five terabits per second over a single optical fibre to the BT Tower in London.

That’s fast enough to download 200 high definition films in a single second.

It raises the prospect that an era of instant, uninterrupted upload and download of information is not too far on the horizon. And yet four streets in Norfolk have appeared in uSwitch’s ignominious list of the “UK’s 30 worst places for broadband” after recording speeds of 1mbps or less.

So think of digital connectivity as opening up new trade routes. Just like new roads, sea routes, railways and air travel opened up new markets and economic opportunities over previous centuries, the 21st century trade route is the internet.

The point is, it shouldn’t matter where in the world you are. East Anglia just needs investment in faster, more reliable connections. Cornwall tells us it can be done.

Better Broadband for Norfolk

High-speed broadband will be available to more than 95% of Norfolk premises by 2020, after £11m of new funding was announced earlier this year for the Better Broadband for Norfolk programme.

The figure currently stands at 88%, more than double the number (42%) who had access before BBfN got under way in 2012, since when £68m has been invested.

Cliff Jordan, leader of Norfolk County Council, which leads the programme, said he would not be satisfied “until everyone in Norfolk can access a good broadband service”. He added: “So we will continue to push for more investment and make the money we already have go as far as possible.”

Tom Garrod, chairman of the council’s new digital innovation and efficiency committee said getting Norfolk digitally connected was a priority.

“Our new committee will be leading the council’s work to build a solid digital infrastructure for the county that will serve the area’s growing technology industry as well as local businesses and residents,” he said.

“As well as overseeing the ambition to deliver access to superfast broadband for at least 95% of residents by 2020 we’ll be investigating how Norfolk County Council should itself harness technology to deliver better 24/7 online personalised services.

“We’ll also be championing the acceleration of digital and mobile connectivity and lobby government and the telecoms industry to maximise new opportunities such as 5G wireless technology.”

Better Broadband for Suffolk

Suffolk County Council says 90% of the county’s properties now have access to high-speed fibre broadband.

The authority has signed a contract with Openreach to extend coverage to 98% during 2020, and plans are being developed for the remaining 2% in order to complete the Better Broadband for Suffolk programme.

Around 315,000 properties now have the option of using fibre broadband, an increase of more than 127,000 from when the Better Broadband for Suffolk programme was launched in 2013.

Suffolk County Council says it is committed to provide high-speed internet access for all properties in the county.

Cabinet member for broadband Councillor Jane Storey welcomed the deal to reach 98% and said it was now working on innovative solutions for the 2%, including ‘self-dig’ schemes where residents club together to route a fibre-optic cable.

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