Satellite could be key to faster rural broadband

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SATELLITE broadband could be the key to providing a superfast connection to Northumberland’s rural areas.

The technology is being looked at by county council chiefs as a way of making sure villages and hamlets are not left out of its iNorthumberland project.

Exchanges in towns across the county, including Morpeth and Ponteland, have already been upgraded commercially by BT, with others in the north and west areas set to benefit from the improvements in the next 12 months.

Central government has approved Northumberland’s Local Broadband Plan and allocated £7million via Broadband Delivery UK to supply superfast broadband services in many of the areas where it is not commercially viable for the private sector.

The county council has agreed to match this with a further £7million, while a commercial supplier will be expected to contribute at least a further £14million.

After this funding is spent, about 10 per cent of properties will be left uncovered. They are located in an area which covers more than 50 per cent of the county’s geography.

The iNorthumberland team is currently seeking additional funding to help householders and small businesses. It has achieved some success with Defra, as outline approval has been given for five schemes, and an application has been submitted to the European Regional Development Fund.

Developments in satellite and mobile broadband over the last few years have been highlighted by the communications industry as a potential solution to connect hard to reach areas.

And at a meeting of the authority’s Economic Prosperity and Strategic Services Scrutiny Committee Coun Peter Jackson said: “Providing superfast broadband for the last 10 per cent is going to be a real challenge.

“But I have noted in recent weeks that satellite broadband services are available for around £17 a month, which is not too expensive for many residents in these areas.

“This appears to be a more sensible way of connecting these properties instead of laying miles of fibre cable.”

Stephen Gray, iNorthumberland Programme Director, said that a ‘last ten percent’ report detailing the true cost of reaching the most rural areas is being prepared for a major lobbying exercise over the next few months.

“Satellite broadband technology is improving rapidly so we are looking at a couple of schemes to encourage these operators to get involved with our project,” he added.

“If we get the funding, the overall solution is likely to be a combination of fibre, wireless and satellite. I still believe that fibre cables will be around for a long time to come because equipment on the ground is an essential part of connecting up the network.”

As for the part of the project which has already received approval, members were told that Northumberland has been accelerated in the procurement process.

As a result, officers now expect the invitation to tender for a commercial supplier to be issued in early December, rather than the end of January.

Following a major community engagement drive, more than 12,000 individual properties in the county have now registered their desire to have superfast broadband.