Villages left behind in internet rush

Communities and businesses in the countryside are being “left behind” as a result of patchy mobile-phone and broadband coverage - which in some cases is worse than in parts of India, according to the government's rural tsar.

Communities and businesses in the countryside are being “left behind” as a result of patchy mobile-phone and broadband coverage - which in some cases is worse than in parts of India, according to the government's rural tsar.

Livelihoods are being put under pressure by the postcode lottery where poorer standards of service are often offered in remote areas compared to towns and cities.

Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Rural Communities Commission, is calling on prime minister Gordon Brown to plough money into new technologies. “Rural communities and businesses have repeatedly called for investment that would encourage higher-value employ-ment opportunities into the rural economy, to break away from low pay and seasonal work,” said Dr Burgess, who recommends updating communication links in remote areas as part of a report on the state of the rural economy in England, due to be finalised in February. “They saw potential in developments in IT and knowledge-based jobs, and highlighted the importance of access to good- quality broadband services to help small businesses develop. For example, one business said investment in broadband, coupled with the incentive of one year's free use for businesses, had encouraged them to set up their own internet-based home hardware company.”

Such investment could strengthen rural economies, cut commuting and out-migration of younger people and help to create more sustainable rural communities.


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Although coverage of broadband and mobile-phone networks has expanded rapidly over the past few years there are blackspots where the service is not available or areas which do not get the highest services available.

In Norfolk, there is 100pc broadband coverage in the exchanges, although there are many people in rural areas who still cannot access broadband, or if they can it is the minimum.

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Dr Burgess added: “The current investment plans of the main ICT providers indicate that many rural businesses and communities could find themselves left behind as technology develops and with bandwidth that is little different to what they have today.

“There are significant differences in accessibility to 'high-end' ICT and next-generation networks between urban and rural communities in rural areas.

“In countries such as India you have good mobile networks.”

The East of England Development Agency (Eeda) is pushing hard for increased internet technology.

It funded the £1.35m pilot project Norfolk Openlink, which was launched in July last year and was the first wireless broadband network to pilot both rural and urban locations, and the largest of its kind in the UK.

The project, managed by the county council, covers most of Norwich city centre, to a 4km radius from County Hall, as well as key sites to the east and west of the city: Broadland Business Park, UEA, Norwich Science Park and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Following an extension of the scheme in January, it also covers parts of South Norfolk.

Ann Carey, joint project director, said: “The whole purpose of the pilot was to learn as much as possible about how a network like this would benefit the public sector, but also businesses and individuals within the area.”

The service is due to close on March 31 and a consultation is under way to see if people think it should continue in some form.

Regulations do not permit the general use of public money to fund such services but a private/public-sector partnership could be a future option, with the other end of the scale being a possible decision to take down the pilot equipment.

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