Headlines: January 28th, 2009

A senior Government advisor has warned that communities in rural areas are in danger of again being on the wrong side of the digital divide as the Government draws up plans for the future of superfast broadband. Dr Stuart Burgess, the Government’s Rural Advocate, said there were still problems with existing broadband networks over speed and accessibility.

Gordon Brown has detailed how investment in digital infrastructure could stimulate the economy but under current plans for superfast broadband from BT and Virgin Media only half of households in the UK would be covered. Dr Burgess fears rural areas are most likely to miss out.

Dr Burges, who also chairs the Commission for Rural Communities has spent two days in Cumbria to see how a project in Alston is looking at building its own superfast network – Alston Fibremoor. He said, “The future of broadband in rural communities is a serious issue. Ensuring they are not left out of plans for future generation broadband is critical. There are also important economic factors at play – for example, farmers will have little incentive to redevelop redundant buildings, for offices, retail or leisure use, if suitable broadband isn’t available.”

Alston Moor is one of the most sparsely populated areas of England and the first generation of broadband did not reach it for many years after it was available elsewhere. As a response one of the first social enterprise broadband projects in the UK was set up there and is now investigating building its own superfast broadband network using fibre technology. The community cooperative wants Alston to be one of the first villages in the country to offer ‘fibre to the home’ in 2009. As well as creating faster, more reliable, connections it will offer opportunities for greater public sector involvement, including services such as the NHS having access to the network.