D-Day for Norfolk broadband bid
With a multi-million pound bid being delivered to government today, the EDP reveals the wide-ranging social and economic benefits which make the introduction of next-generation broadband so vital for Norfolk.
Economic investment worth �401m over ten years, more than 1,300 new jobs – and the connection at long last of all Norfolk's remote rural communities with the rest of the world.
Those are the reasons why it is so crucial that the bid being presented to a government agency today must succeed in bringing an essential upgrade to the county's internet infrastructure.
Norfolk County Council is competing against 24 other local authorities for a share of �530m held by Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) which was set up to bring superfast broadband within reach of all urban and rural communities.
The bid asks for �15m towards the estimated �60m cost of providing a minimum internet speed of two megabits per second (2Mbps) across the whole county by the end of March 2015.
And the council has pledged �15m of its own funds to help realise those ambitions, with the remaining �30m expected to be invested by the private communications company which eventually wins the contract if the bid succeeds.
Among the other goals would be to improve the connection speed of 93,315 premises, with 9,555 properties benefiting from 2Mbps and above for the first time.
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The overwhelming impetus behind Norfolk's application has been proven by the joint Broadband: Back the Bid campaign, run by the EDP and Norfolk County Council, which has won the support of at least 130,000 people.
They include the employees of more than 200 businesses and organisations which have returned testimonial forms and signed letters of support during the last two weeks.
And their frustrations at being hampered by snail's-pace connectivity have been echoed by MPs, voluntary groups, police, healthcare workers, council officials and families who have all spoken to the EDP since the campaign's launch.
Derrick Murphy, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: 'Without doubt, Norfolk currently suffers disproportionately from poor broadband access.
'With the internet becoming central to virtually every aspect of modern life, this is holding our county back in so many ways – impeding our businesses, feeding inequalities and limiting the opportunities for people of all ages. We simply cannot afford to accept this any longer.
'Improving our broadband network in Norfolk is one of the best investments we could make, in value for money terms, to ensure the future success of the county. BDUK has indicated the bids that can show a strong local contribution and the ability to get moving quickly will stand a better chance of success.
'A sincere thank you is due to everyone who has contributed their frustrations, their ambitions and their signatures to the campaign. This truly has been a 'Norfolk United' approach and central to that success has been the role played by the EDP.'
A ceremony to mark the submission of Norfolk's bid for BDUK funding will take place today at County Hall.
EDP editor Peter Waters, who will speak to key campaign partners and supporters at the event, said: 'Norfolk, as part of the East of England Development Agency, has long been disadvantaged in securing government support but, now that we are campaigning with our own voice, I hope we are listened to.
'The big ticket for this county is investment in infrastructure, and Broadband is a perfect example of that. With that investment we can create jobs and wealth, which will not only benefit Norfolk but also contribute to the treasury.'
Competition is expected to be fierce for the first round of funding decisions, due to be awarded at the end of May. BDUK has said it is unlikely that more than five of the 25 bids will be successful.
The county council, in partnership with the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and Shaping Norfolk's Future, has gathered a mountain of evidence which they hope will prove the urgency of Norfolk's need.
Mike Burrows, deputy chairman of economic development partnership Shaping Norfolk's Future, said: 'We believe our bid has a compelling economic case.
'This bid is supported by the county's biggest employers and the county's smallest micro-businesses. All recognise the importance of broadband. We estimate that together these organisations employ or represent at least 130,000 workers, which is a powerful call for action.'
Mr Murphy said the county council's �15m share of the required investment would be met by borrowing, with the repayments funded from the Norfolk Infrastructure Fund, which is supported by income from council tax on second homes, and from future savings on IT contracts.
He said: 'By pledging to contribute �15m of the �60m project costs, I believe we have shown just how committed we are by identifying significant capital funds at a time when finances are extremely tight. I should stress that this funding is not being taken from front line services nor will it have any impact on council tax.'
The predicted boost in job creation and economic investment for Norfolk would be achieved by removing barriers to business growth, encouraging start-ups and persuading more international businesses to relocate to Norfolk.
The county's bid to BDUK contains a raft of statistics, researched by independent analysts, which show the education, healthcare and economic deprivation caused by living with slow internet connection.
But Norfolk's geographic size and large rural population makes these disadvantages more acute and the potential benefits of an improved network greater.
The bid says greater broadband availability would improve educational attainment, reduce social exclusion, and lower carbon dioxide emissions and traffic congestion by enabling more home working.
And while BDUK believes two-thirds of the country will have access to superfast broadband by 2015 thanks to private sector investment, the figure in Norfolk is projected to be much higher – at 60pc of the county's population.
Karen O'Kane, head of ICT at Norfolk County Council, said: 'We have proved that we are one of the most sparsely populated counties, with real issues of deprivation across employment, income and education.
'We know from the evidence of what happened from the introduction of the first-generation of broadband that people in Norfolk made more use of it and gained more benefit from it than the rest of the country. If we can move this forward, people and businesses will grab it by the throat because it is so vital across every single aspect of life in the region.'
If the bid is successful, a tendering process would award a contract to a private communications company, who would build and own the new infrastructure in return for �30m of investment to match the public sector's contribution.
A key requirement of the contract would be the 'future-proofing' of the network against subsequent advances in technology, and to ensure it was open to other service providers to allow competition and drive prices down.
While the minimum target is 2Mbps for every property, the project would aim to bring superfast broadband of 30Mbps to as many premises as possible, prioritising areas with a population density of more than 100 people per sq km.
The bid does not specify the type of technology required, preferring the eventual contract-winner to innovate. But it is expected the goals would be reached by a combination of fibre-optic cables and wireless provision.