Our rural Norfolk communities need better broadband

Business leaders warned yesterday that it would be 'one more nail in the coffin' for Norfolk rural communities if the county did not secure vital government funding for better broadband.

Backing a campaign by the EDP and Norfolk County Council they said it would be the thousands of small and medium-sized rural businesses – and the communities in which they are based – which would be hit hardest if improvements were not made to the county's broadband infrastructure.

Chris Starkie, chief executive of Shaping Norfolk's Future, said: 'Rural businesses are the backbone of the Norfolk economy and to compete on a level playing field with businesses in other parts of the country they need access to broadband.'

There are more than 30,000 active businesses in Norfolk, 65pc – or more than 20,000 – of which are based in rural areas. Of those, about 90pc employ fewer than 100 people.

Mr Starkie added: 'Improving broadband is a fantastic way of improving business competitiveness and enabling businesses to be able to develop and thrive no matter where they are based.'

Yesterday the EDP and county council launched its joint Broadband: Back the Bid campaign urging people to help bring the next generation of technology to this area.

Over the next two weeks, the council, Shaping Norfolk's Future and the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) will be putting together a bid to secure millions of pounds of government funding from Broadband Delivery UK, which has a total of �530m to award across the UK.

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The money would be used towards a �70m project to ensure everyone in the county has access to broadband speeds of at least 2 megabits per second (Mbps).

But if that bid fails, David Dukes, economic development manager for Norfolk County Council, warned the impact on rural communities would be immense. He said: 'It would be one more nail in the coffin of rural life.'

He said there was already evidence that poor broadband speeds were stopping new businesses setting up in rural areas.

Rural villages are responsible for 22pc of all Norfolk jobs, with a further 21pc of workers based in market towns like Wells, which are not considered rural areas.

In total, that is more than the whole of the greater Norwich area which provides 38pc of the county's jobs, while King's Lynn is responsible for 9pc and Great Yarmouth 10pc.

Many of those rural businesses contribute to one of Norfolk's most important industries – tourism.

James Ellis, a member of Norfolk Tourism and marketing director of Reepham-based Norfolk Country Cottages, said the internet was 'critical' for businesses in the tourism sector, whether they used it to run online booking systems, promote themselves on social media sites or back up files.

He said even his company, which has some of the better broadband speeds available in the Reepham area, came to a standstill every time someone sent out an email to their large database of contacts.

Without improvements to the infrastructure, he fears growth will be stunted and companies will be forced to move to urban areas. He said: 'That will inevitably mean you end up with greater rural poverty.'

Mr Dukes voiced concern about the knock-on effect on communities. 'If you have got an employer in a rural area, those employees are more likely to spend some of their earnings in that rural economy,' he said. 'They will pop to the shop to buy a paper, or nip into the pub for lunch.

'Our shops, our pubs, our post offices and other rural services are closing on a weekly or monthly basis. We need to breathe life back into rural business.'