Village is first in Norfolk to get better broadband - but scheme behind it criticised over delays
- Credit: Archant Norfolk
It has taken years of campaigning, 15,000 signatures and £41m in funding, and yesterday the first village in Norfolk was connected to high-speed Broadband as part of a county-wide project which will hugely increase internet speeds.
More than 3,500 homes and businesses in 30 areas across the county will soon be fixed up to faster broadband thanks to the campaign, backed by the Eastern Daily Press, which aims to get 83pc of Norfolk connected to high-speed broadband by 2015.
The broadband cabinet unveiled in Croxton, near Thetford, yesterday was the first in Norfolk to be built under the government's Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) framework.
But despite being ahead of schedule in the county, the government-backed scheme was criticised by the National Audit Office for being behind target.
Norfolk, Suffolk, Cumbria and the Highlands and Islands were singled out in a report by the National Audit Office for struggling to hit the target of connecting 90pc of properties to broadband services of at least 24Mbps (megabits per second) by 2017.
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Auditor general Amyas Morse said: 'The rural broadband project is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value.'
Some contracts had been delayed because BDUK was awaiting State Aid approval from the EU, which regulates any public subsidies which could have the potential to distort competition and affect trade between member states.
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Norfolk's scheme is three months ahead of schedule but it is expected to cover 83pc of the county rather than the government's target of 90pc, unless more money is found.
That cash could come from the government with an extra £250m pledged in the latest Comprehensive Spending Review to help areas reach a target of 95pc high-speed broadband coverage.
Minister for culture, communications and creative industries, Ed Vaizey, told the EDP yesterday that he was pleased with Norfolk's progress and suggested the county could receive more money for the programme.
'Norfolk is in a very good place,' he said. 'They've got planning lined up and permission for the cabinets.'
Mr Vaizey encouraged the county council to bid for a slice of the £250m funding which would bring Norfolk up to its 90pc target. 'We would listen to anybody who had a programme that we could fund that was robust,' he said.
Programme director Karen O'Kane said the Better Broadband for Norfolk project, which is costing £41m, had a tougher task than most counties as 57pc of the county would not have been connected without the public-backed project.
She said that even those homes which will not receive a connection of 24Mbps or above through the roll-out of the scheme would be getting faster connections, while the target of 90pc of homes and businesses connected to high-speed broadband was a government aim for the whole country rather than for Norfolk.
At the unveiling of the cabinet yesterday, she said: 'It is an incredible day for us because at long last we can see it happening. The difference is quite incredible.'
The Thetford area is the first to benefit from the scheme with a cabinet also connected for the Mundford Road industrial estate and another one installed near Thetford railway station.
County councillor for the Brecks Ian Monson said: 'The Brecks is often a forgotten part of Norfolk. We are delighted that it has started here.'
Yesterday morning, councillors, villagers and businesses gathered in Croxton Village Hall to celebrate the milestone.
A pink ribbon, with Better Broadband for Norfolk written on it, around the cabinet was cut by George Nobbs, leader of Norfolk County Council and council chairman Hilary Cox.
Mr Nobbs said Norfolk should focus on the progress of the programme rather than the Audit Office's report which he described as 'extremely unhelpful'.
He said: 'It is a very bizarre definition of lagging behind when we are the first. We were the first authority to apply for this, first to do a deal with the government and the first to put up our share of funding. We are months ahead of any other county.
'Everybody got behind this, the council, the MPs, the EDP. It will have a considerable effect on the county and help businesses in rural locations. In almost every aspect of life it is going to help.'
Kev Black, director of BT Openreach, told the gathering in the village hall: 'I think we should be very proud. What Croxton is seeing is the start of something really big here – adding jobs and growing the economy. It is hard, but we believe in what we are doing.'
The council expects to release the next list of areas to benefit from the scheme every couple of months and pledged to roll out the scheme as quickly as possible.
The project is being funded with £15m of council cash, £15m of government money and £11m from BT.
When complete in 2015, all properties in Norfolk will have a minimum internet connection of 2Mbps.