MOVES are under way to ensure county residents are better connected to the internet.
Northumberland County Council could find out in the next few weeks what its funding allocation from the Government will be to improve super-fast broadband provision if its bid is approved.
But the Liberal Democrat Executive has been criticised for not taking action earlier by the Conservative opposition group, which claims the authority has missed out on vital money.
The administration says it is important to make sure its application meets the necessary criteria or it won’t receive any funds.
The county is at a disadvantage for broadband connections compared to other places in the UK because of its geography and relatively low population dispersed across small communities.
And a number of residents have complained about slow connection speeds.
The Government has launched a programme to provide the whole of the UK with access to reliable, higher speed broadband services by 2015, setting aside £530m through Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK) alongside private sector investment.
Project Manager Peter Moran has been appointed and a formal Project Board is being established to manage and co-ordinate the development and submission of the county’s bid.
Local authorities were invited to apply for funding to pilot the scheme, but the council decided to wait for the main project.
This has angered the Conservative group and Leader Peter Jackson said the administration should have begun the process earlier to give it a chance of being one of the pilot areas, particularly as the Northumberland Strategic Partnership’s (NSP’s) work to develop broadband was coming to an end. It officially stopped three months ago.
“It’s good to hear that the council is waking up to the impact of high speed broadband in Northumberland, however the administration should have started this project some time ago,” said Coun Jackson.
“It should have stepped in immediately to fill the void left by the NSP and this hiatus has meant that the authority has not applied for the BDUK pilot scheme.
“The research to find the evidence for supplying faster broadband would have been done in time, but now we have missed out on vital funding.
“In saying that, hopefully progress can now be made with this Project Board. Many people have said to me that their connection speed is very slow, including business people who have had to move away from Northumberland as a result.”
Executive Member for Infrastructure and Environment Isabel Hunter, said: “We have always seen broadband as a priority issue and last year we applied for a Government pilot scheme in a joint bid with Durham, but we didn’t get it so we have been working closely with BDUK to make sure we have the evidence in place for all areas of the county — both urban and rural.
“It is a catch-22 situation. We want to progress as quickly as we can, but we also need to make sure we have everything covered before the bid goes in so it isn’t refused.
“We already have a broadband task group in place to get information from our communities and there is another broadband project in development with the Northumberland National Park.”
The BDUK process has recently changed as the Government intends to announce the allocation for every English local authority by July so they know what they will have to spend if their bid is accepted.
Mr Moran said: “We know anecdotally the problems with broadband across the county, now we need firm evidence of this through questionnaires and other methods. We are looking into ways of getting a big enough sample size.
“We can demonstrate the need is there as 22 per cent of people in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear have never used the internet, but we also need to show that the demand to use broadband exists, as well as how it will change our communities for the better.”