Northumberland schools selected for pilot as part of £200m rural broadband scheme

A number of schools in Northumberland are among 31 nationally in a pilot scheme, as part of the Government’s £200million roll-out of full-fibre broadband to rural locations.

Thursday, 23rd May 2019, 1:54 pm
The Government has announced the Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme, a 200million scheme focused on rural areas.

On Sunday (May 19), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced that ‘the starting gun has been fired on a programme to roll out gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband to the most rural and remote locations in the UK’. One gigabit is the same as 1,000 megabits, so represents an extremely fast connection.

It follows the Government identifying last year that approximately 10 per cent of UK premises, largely in rural and remote areas, would be unlikely to receive gigabit-capable connections commercially by 2033.

Therefore, it is aiming for an ‘outside-in approach’ so that the identified 10 per cent of premises are reached at the same time as the commercial roll-out happens across the UK.

The Rural Gigabit Connectivity (RGC) programme, a two-year, £200million UK-wide programme focused on rural areas, is the first step of this approach.

The RGC scheme will trial a model connecting local hubs in rural areas, starting with primary schools.

Working with the Department for Education, DCMS has identified the first 31 schools – in Cornwall, Cumbria, Northumberland and Wales – eligible for a connection under the scheme.

Those announced in Northumberland so far include Cambo First School, Ellingham CofE Aided Primary School, St Michael’s CofE Primary School in Alnwick and Tweedmouth Prior Park First School, as well as two in the south-east of the county – Cambois and New Hartley, but it is understood the number will soon be rising to 12.

Some may question how rural some of these schools actually are, given that they are in or near some of the county’s major towns, like Alnwick, Berwick and Blyth, but Coun Nick Oliver, the county council’s cabinet member for corporate services, explained that this pilot is simply to enable the roll-out to be tested.

Following the primary schools in this first tranche, other public buildings will then be added throughout the course of the programme, for example, health sites and community halls.

The RGC programme also has a voucher component, offering up to £3,500 for small businesses and up to £1,500 for residents.

Coun Oliver said: “This is a significant announcement by the Conservative Government and here in Northumberland we still have communities unable to get any sort of connection so we embrace the outside-in approach.

“We are involved in detailed discussions at a regional level with DCMS and BDUK and welcome the massive increase in value of the vouchers over previous schemes. This will connect those harder-to-reach businesses and homes.

“In the meantime, we are delighted that seven of the 31 schools chosen for this small pilot are here in our county.”

A Northumberland County Council spokeswoman added: “We recognise the vital role that public-sector buildings can play in the deployment of full-fibre connectivity and are pleased to see that seven of the initial 31 sites chosen nationally are in Northumberland.

“We believe this approach, when combined with the new Rural Gigabit Connectivity voucher scheme, will bring availability of world-class digital connectivity to residents and businesses in the communities surrounding these sites, and is a key step in helping achieve Government’s plans for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033.

“Access to fit-for-purpose digital connectivity by residents and businesses remains a key priority for the county council, with work continuing to increase availability of superfast broadband via the council’s iNorthumberland Programme.

“This programme has already seen the availability of superfast broadband increase from 63 per cent coverage of premises expected to be delivered commercially to approximately 94 per cent currently, and is anticipated to achieve coverage of approximately 96 per cent by the end of the current contract with its delivery partner Openreach, due to be completed in December 2019.”

Announcing the programme on Sunday, Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said: “Our decision to tackle some of the hardest-to-reach places first is a significant shift in government policy and will be instrumental in delivering our plans for a nationwide full fibre broadband network by 2033.”

The funding for the scheme comes from the Government’s National Infrastructure Productivity Fund, which is designed to bolster UK productivity.

The Exchequer Secretary, Robert Jenrick, said: “This investment enables communities that have not previously benefited from broadband to leapfrog to the most advanced fibre technology – boosting productivity and enhancing quality of life.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service