Positive response to digital divide campaign in Westminster

Business leaders and community representatives from across East Anglia received a positive response when they outlined the need for improvements to rural mobile signal and broadband in Westminster on Monday (22nd).

Led by Mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman, the digital divide steering group met Ed Vaizey, Minister for the Digital Economy, to discuss their on-going campaign to improve connectivity in rural areas, particularly for the estimated 5-10% of businesses and homes which will not be reached by national fibre broadband rollouts.

The group outlined the economic and social case for a pilot project to improve broadband through satellite and wireless technologies. This can also then allow for 3G mobile signal to be generated through Open Sure Signal devices.

Further details are now being added so that an updated proposal for a pilot project can be submitted to the government. It is hoped that a test scheme will be in place by the end of 2014 to report during 2015 on which technologies can be effectively used to close the digital divide in rural areas, based on testing a range of alternative service delivery technologies with thousands of rural businesses and households.

The campaign involves a number of partners including local MPs, agricultural purchasing co-operative Anglia Farmers (AF), the CLA, the NFU, the Federation of Small Businesses and Local Enterprise Partnerships in the region.

George Freeman MP said: “For far too long rural areas have been condemned as backwaters. But with faster digital communications we can unlock a “Rural Renaissance”. That’s why I launched the digital divide campaign, bringing together business leaders and campaign groups across East Anglia to secure faster broadband in our area. To do that, we need a voucher to empower local communities to find solutions themselves, which the Minister today was very supportive of, and has asked us to work up. This meeting was a major step forward in accelerating 21st century digital communications for our most rural areas.”

AF chief executive Clarke Willis said: “Our plan for a pilot project was positively received, which is great news. We hope to have a test project in place in the coming months which will allow us to provide real benefits for local businesses and generate useful feedback for similar schemes in other parts of the UK.”

Nicola Currie, CLA Eastern Regional Director, said: “The Minister clearly appreciated the need for businesses in rural ‘not spots’ to have solutions as a matter of urgency and to be able to work a reliable time table so that they can make informed investment decisions. Whilst the discussions were robust, it was an encouraging meeting which could bring results that can benefit not only East Anglia but remote rural areas as a whole.”

Chris Starkie, managing director of New Anglia LEP that represents Norfolk and Suffolk, said: “It is critical to have high speed broadband in every location, not just urban centres. Norfolk and Suffolk has entrepreneurs and SMEs in virtually every hamlet and village across the region, from holiday rental companies to digital marketing agencies. Connectivity with the rest of the UK and the world is vital to their future economic success.

“Ministers know we have a thriving economy in East Anglia and there is a very valuable return on greater investment in this technology for both the Government and the region. We continue to make that case loud and clear.”

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