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Poor connectivity continues to fail Norfolk’s rural businesses

06:00 10 February 2016

Clarke Willis, chief executive at Anglia Farmers.

Clarke Willis, chief executive at Anglia Farmers.

Archant

Rural businesses are still being failed by poor mobile signal and broadband speeds, a new survey shows.

NR20 postcode

When it comes to connectivity in Norfolk, it can be a tale of the haves and have-nots – but in one postcode, they work side by side.

Respondents in NR20 - between Dereham, Fakenham and Reepham – recorded big disparities in satisfaction with broadband speed and phone signal.

Some 14pc said they had download speeds of more than 24Mbps, while 12pc had less than 2Mbps.

In the same area, a total of 13pc rated their phone signal as poor or very poor, while 9pc said their phone signal was good or very good.

Steven Howell of Tower Farm in Bintree – in NR20 – has a cell site on his land which was recently down for more than four weeks during an upgrade to 4G.

Mr Howell, who works across three farms, employing three people, said: “Mobile phones are vital for business. The upgrade took weeks and the signal kept coming and going.”

Mr Howell said he would look to upgrade to 4G in time, adding: “Broadband is not too bad. In order to get a consistent service we use a satellite system as we are an isolated property. The broadband is better but we had no choice and it’s more expensive.”

Anglia Farmers’ Digital Divide survey collated the views of more than 800 businesses and farmers as part of an ongoing project looking at the connectivity problems facing its members.

Among the key findings were that more than half of respondents – 57pc – rated their phone signal as poor or very poor while only 4pc said it was very good.

When it came to broadband speeds, 31pc reported a basic download speed of less than 2Mbps, with only 10pc receiving a superfast speed of more than 24Mbps. One in three respondents (34pc) said they were unable to regularly connect more than one device to their broadband.

The results come just four months after the completion of stage one of Norfolk County Council’s £41m Better Broadband for Norfolk (BBfN) programme, in conjunction with BT.

The project has given 185,885 mainly rural homes and businesses access to fibre broadband, nearly doubling the number that stood before the programme got underway three years ago. The second phase is due to bring faster broadband speeds to even more remote parts of the county.

Clarke Willis, chief executive at Anglia Farmers, said: “Norfolk County Council have done a great job in rolling out the BBfN programme, but we know there are still big areas not covered and, therefore, we are all going to need to put together a plan to ensure we cover these areas.”

The Government launched Broadband Delivery UK in 2013, with the aim of connecting 90pc of the country to superfast broadband by this year, and 95pc by next year.

Mr Willis said: “The issue is now about how we can use satellite and WiFi to fill in the areas not receiving broadband. We are going to have to galvanise as a county to reach the areas we can’t get fibre to.”

There could be hope for businesses blighted by bad phone signal as Vodafone works with Telefonica, which owns O2, under Project Beacon to upgrade 17,500 joint masts to improve 4G services.

Mr Willis said: “It is getting better. The good news is that by the end of 2016 there should be pretty good mobile coverage across the region. The bad news is they are switching masts off and moving to other masts which may cause some disruption.

“The response to the survey shows how critical this is. It is still one of the major problems we face.”

The East Anglia Digital Divide steering group has met since 2014. It is led by Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, and includes Anglia Farmers, the NFU, Federation of Small Businesses, Norfolk and Suffolk county councils, New Anglia LEP as well as telecoms and broadband providers.

Is your business affected by poor connectivity? Email kate.royall@archant.co.uk

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